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At age 90, America's first Black astronaut candidate has finally made it to space

Ed Dwight poses for a portrait to promote the National Geographic documentary film "The Space Race" during the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour, Thursday, in February.
Chris Pizzello
/
Invision/AP
Ed Dwight poses for a portrait to promote the National Geographic documentary film "The Space Race" during the Winter Television Critics Association Press Tour, Thursday, in February.

Ed Dwight, the man who six decades ago nearly became America's first Black astronaut, made his first trip into space at age 90 on Sunday along with five crewmates aboard Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket.

The liftoff from a West Texas launch site marked the first passenger flight in nearly two years for the commercial space venture run by billionaire Jeff Bezos. The approximately 10-minute suborbital flight put Dwight in the history books as the oldest person ever to reach space. He beat out Star Trek actor William Shatner for that honor by just a few months. Shatner was a few months younger when he went up on a New Shepard rocket in 2021.

Dwight shared the capsule with Mason Angel, a venture capitalist; Sylvain Chiron, the founder of a French craft brewery; entrepreneur Kenneth Hess; aviator Gopi Thotakura and Carol Schaller, a retired accountant.

The rocket reached more than 347,000 feet, crossing the 330,000 foot high Kármán line, the imaginary line that denotes the boundary of space. They experienced a few brief moments of weightlessness.

Soon after, the New Shepard booster touched down in a cloud of dust near the launch site. The crew capsule landed under two of its three parachutes, with one redundant chute failing to fully deploy.

Emerging from the capsule, a beaming Dwight shook two fists in the air in triumph.

"Fantastic! A life-changing experience. Everyone needs to do this!" he remarked. "I didn't know I needed this in my life, but now I need it in my life."

He said the separation of the rocket and the capsule was "more dynamic" than he'd anticipated.

In the 1960s, Dwight, an Air Force captain, was fast tracked for space flight after then-President John F. Kennedy asked for a Black astronaut. Despite graduating in the top half of a test pilot school, Dwight was subsequently passed over for selection as an astronaut, a story he detailed in his autobiography, Soaring On The Wings Of A Dream: The Untold Story of America's First Black Astronaut Candidate.

After leaving the Air Force, Dwight went on to become a celebrated sculptor, specializing in creating likenesses of historic African American figures.

Speaking with NPR by phone a few hours after Sunday's launch, Dwight said, "I've got bragging rights now."

"All these years, I've been called an astronaut," Dwight said, but "now I have a little [astronaut] pin, which is ... a totally different matter."

He said he'd been up to 80,000 feet in test flights during his Air Force career, but at four times that altitude aboard New Shepard, the curvature of the Earth was more pronounced. "That line between the atmosphere and space. It was like somebody pulled the curtains down over the windows," he said.

The cost of Dwight's ticket is being shared among Blue Origin, Space for Humanity and the Jaison and Jamie Robinson Family Foundation. (Jaison Robinson, who flew on a previous Blue Origin flight, is on the NPR Foundation Board of Trustees.)

The first crewed New Shepard flight was launched in July 2020 and included Bezos, his brother Mark Bezos, pilot Wally Funk and 18-year-old Dutch citizen Oliver Daemen, who was, at the time of launch, the youngest person ever to go into space.

Dwight told NPR he was ready to go again. "I want to go into orbit. I want to go around the Earth and see the whole Earth. That's what I want to do now."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Scott Neuman
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.