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'The Space Race' documentary explores Black astronauts' efforts to overcome injustice
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Amna Nawaz: A new documentary explores the little known stories of the first Black pilots and engineers who became astronauts, pioneers of NASA's space program.
Geoff Bennett has this look at the film "The Space Race," which airs tonight on the National Geographic Channel and is streaming starting tomorrow on Disney+ and Hulu.
It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.
MAN: Very few people today even have a clue about Black people's contribution to human spaceflight, because they weren't written in history books.
Geoff Bennett: To tell us more, we're joined now by one of the directors of the film, Lisa Cortes, and retired Major General Charles Bolden, an astronaut and former NASA administrator who's featured in the documentary.
It's so great to have you both here.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden (RET.), Former NASA Administrator: Great to be here. Thank you.
And, Charlie Bolden, it's always an honor to get to speak with you, in large part because you have had such a distinguished career in the military and in the space program, retired Marine Corps major general, NASA administrator during the Obama administration. You flew on four space shuttle missions.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Yes.
Geoff Bennett: It's hard to believe you didn't set out to be an aviator.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: I did not that.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: And that is not something I wanted to be. In fact, that was one of the things I swore I would never do was fly an airplane.
Geoff Bennett: Really?
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Oh, yes.
Geoff Bennett: Yes.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: No way.
Geoff Bennett: Tell me about some of the obstacles and challenges you faced in being a pioneering astronaut.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: I came from the segregated South, so I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, my wife and me.
And at the age of 12, I saw a program called "Men of Annapolis" about life at the Naval Academy, decided that's where I wanted to go to school, so that was my goal and life from then on, and met with the obstacle when I was finally at the high school and I could apply that nobody in the South Carolina delegation was going to appoint a Black to any service academy.
And so I was just overwhelmed by disappointment. But I learned that the vice president of the United States can make an appointment of anybody. And that was Lyndon Johnson at the time. So I began to write him over years, never heard from him, but subsequently got a visit from a Navy recruiter, and then a retired federal judge from right here in D.C., Judge Bennett, who came around at the behest of President Johnson looking for qualified young men, only men back then, to go to the service academies.
I ended up getting an appointment from Congressman William Dawson in Chicago, Illinois, and I was off to the Naval Academy.
Geoff Bennett: Wow.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: But I came out of there saying, no Marine Corps, no aviation.
Geoff Bennett: Lisa Cortes, there are any number of stories you could tell as an award-winning producer and director. Why tell this one?
Lisa Cortes, Director, "The Space Race": I am always intrigued by the hidden figures, people and stories that we think we know about. But, actually, when you start to pull back the layers, you discover the contributors who have not had their time in the spotlight.
And to be able to focus on the beginning of the program and Ed Dwight's journey as we trace it then to the shuttle era men and to the present was something that was missing in the popular narratives being told and just so rich in detail and legacy.
Geoff Bennett: Guy Bluford was the first Black American to go into space as an astronaut. That was in 1983, but Lisa mentioned Ed Dwight.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Yes.
Geoff Bennett: He was set to do that some 20 years earlier.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Exactly.
Geoff Bennett: But it didn't work out. Tell us about him and tell us his story.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: He did not work out very simply because he was the dream of one person, and that was President Kennedy. When President Kennedy was assassinated, within weeks, if not days, any dream of him becoming an astronaut was gone, because they just took him out of the line of people who were potential astronauts.
NASA went through a selection that year, and he was not among those that was selected, although everybody had given him the expectation that he would be. And the explanations — the funny thing is, there are no explanations. So even to this day, you have his story from him, but there is no one on the other side to tell the opposing story.
It's just everybody says, no, we have never heard of that.
Geoff Bennett: And Ed Dwight has since become a prolific artist and sculptor.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: I tell people that the greatest gift to the world was Ed Dwight not being selected as an astronaut. Now, that may sound strange. He is one of the most prolific sculptors today.
The one that I love is his Emancipation sculpture, which is a life-size — I mean, it's huge, that stretches across the front of the state capitol in Austin, Texas. And I think it's appropriate for today that Ed Dwight's work going from slavery all the way up to the modern time titled Emancipation, is on display in front of the Texas Statehouse.
Geoff Bennett: Lisa, let's talk about the pioneering Black women astronauts, Mae Jemison, Stephanie Wilson, Joan Higginbotham, Sian Proctor.
How do their stories figure into the larger story of racial progress in the space program?
Lisa Cortes: Well, one of the things that's interesting about our film is, we look at how the program changes with the introduction of the shuttle, because the shuttle allows for people who are not going to be pilots.
And so we first see this expansion in '83 with the group that includes Ron and Guy and Fred. And then shortly afterwards, we see Mae Jemison and other women who are scientists, who are geologists, who are able to then become a part of this expansion.
Geoff Bennett: And, Charlie, you have logged more than 680 hours in space.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Not a lot of time. Not a lot of time.
Geoff Bennett: Not a lot of time?
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Not — it's — I love to hear it.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: And it sounds like a lot, but, in relative terms, that's about a month in space.
Geoff Bennett: OK.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Victor Glover, on his first flight, spent six months in space, you know. So, he..
Geoff Bennett: And he's the first Black astronaut to go to the International Space Station.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: He's the first Black astronaut to go to the International Space Station. So that will tell you.
And Victor and I have this thing that there was, I want to say, a 20-year gap between when I became the second Black pilot to fly in space, to get into NASA's astronaut program, and Victor became the third. So we seem to go in these decadal upgrades to the system, which just tells you that, in this kind of activity, you have got to be persistent and you have got to have a pipeline through which people go.
And that — Lisa's movie, hopefully, this is the right time for it because you're hearing a lot of ridiculous stuff about the lack of qualifications of Blacks and women in fields like aviation and everything else, which is absolutely absurd. So you can't argue with what is documented in this particular movie.
Geoff Bennett: Lisa, there's such power and poignancy in letting the astronauts tell their own stories in the way that you do in this film.
What conversations do you hope this documentary will inspire?
Lisa Cortes: Well, increasingly, we live in a time where there are many factors who are trying to tell us that the teaching of Black history is not necessary, or they are trying to recreate the contributions of African Americans to our great country.
And Charlie Bolden has one of my favorite quotes, which is — Charlie, actually, if you will share it about our history, I think it is the perfect thing that people need to understand about the film.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: No, I — what I have always said is that Black history is American history, and we all play a role in the history of this country.
We're on this constant march toward a more perfect union. And my point to everyone, and I think what Lisa is saying is what this movie will hopefully portray is, we deny Black history, American history, at our own peril. If we choose to ignore it and choose to pretend that you and I don't exist or you and I didn't contribute to this phenomenal country that remains the greatest country on the planet, you do that at your own peril.
We have been through this once. We have been through this game. We have been to this show. The scary part about what we're going through today is the fact that we know the end if we keep going down this road of trying to pretend that people who played one of the most important roles in the space program, if you're talking about people like Katherine Johnson, the hidden figures, you cannot eradicate them from the story, because there are too many people who participated in that story.
John Glenn, when he was here on the planet, would tell you, that was the difference in him saying, I'm going and I'm not going was this young Black woman who had done the math and told him that everything was going to be OK.
You can deny that, you can pretend it didn't happen, but you have got other people who are around who will tell you, no, buddy, we weren't going had it not been for Katherine Johnson. And that's important. It's important for young kids to understand that.
Geoff Bennett: Well, the film is "The Space Race."
Lisa Cortes, we appreciate you. And Major General Charlie Bolden, thank you so much, sir, for your service, your sacrifice and your example.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: It's always good to be with you and Lisa. You're two phenomenal people that I love dearly. And I watch you all the time, so thanks very much for this opportunity.
Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden: Thank you.
Lisa Cortes: Thank you.
Amna Nawaz: And, online, you can hear more from Charles Bolden on how space changed his perspective of the world. That's on our YouTube channel.