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This Saturday, the nation will be joined in celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which put the American space program on the world stage. If race relations were different, it was possible that sculptor Ed Dwight could have been the first astronaut for NASA.

Dwight was born on September 9, 1933 in Kansas City, Mo. His father was a player for the Kansas City Monarchs, and as a boy he showed promised as an artist. After high school, Dwight entered Kansas City Junior College, earning an A.A. degree in Engineering  before entering the Air Force in 1953. As a cadet and airman, Dwight completed his training and was stationed at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. At night, Dwight studied at Arizona State University, earning his B.S. degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1957.

In 1961, the administration of President John F. Kennedy, more specifically his brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, wanted to integrate the Air Force’s astronaut training program that would form the basis for NASA. Dwight was selected to train under Chuck Yeager at California’s Edwards Air Force Base in the Aerospace Research Pilot School program as a test pilot, becoming the first African-American to receive such training.

Although Dwight proved capable enough to make it to the second phase, NASA did not select him for astronaut training. Dwight left the military in 1966, citing the racial tensions of the time. He eventually settled in Denver, Colo., earning an M.F.A. degree in Sculpting from the University of Denver.

Dwight began creating works featured first in his adopted hometown, and then his work was commissioned nationwide, for places such as the Alex Haley/Kunta Kinte Memorial in Maryland, a Rosa Parks memorial in Grand Rapids, Mich., and a number of places in Texas and beyond. Much of Dwight’s work centers on African-American figures and folklore.

Now 85, Dwight still gets letters from admirers who learned about his historic achievement despite him never gaining the opportunity to travel to space.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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