The Space Race: A Documentary Examining the Black History Side of the Race to Space

The space race has been covered in both documentary films, shows, and movies.  Never before has an intimate telling of the Black experience been told until now with National Geographic’s “The Space Race” currently streaming on Disney+. Told through interviews, archival photos, and film footage, “The Space Race” looks at how the NASA space program was integrated starting from the Civil Rights Era until now.

the space race documentary movie poster showing a black man with the moon as a background
Photo courtesy of Copyright © 2024 National Geographic

The most compelling aspect of this documentary by Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza is the story of Ed Dwight and his experience with training to be an astronaut.  In the early 1960’s, President John F. Kennedy declared to his team that he wanted to integrate the space program by including a Black astronaut.  When his advisors balked and insisted that it would take too long to find one Kennedy told them to make it happen and quickly.  Captain Ed Dwight was a 27-year-old Air Force pilot who was recruited to participate.

Dwight recounts his experience noting that he had to depict perfection, even going to the means of portraying a happy family even though, he and his ex-wife were separated.  Dwight details the racism he experienced by pilot Chuck Yeager who insisted that Dwight would never fly and his heartbreak over the assasination of Kennedy and the death of his dream to get to space.

Years would go by without another Black astronaut being included in the space program until there was a push in the late 1970s for a more diverse crew of astronauts.  Two interesting aspects are revealed for this push to build a diverse space crew, first, the Russians had recruited a Afro Cuban astronaut named Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez and second, NASA began a PR campaign using Nichelle Nichols (the Black actress who played Uhura on Star Trek) to attract more minorities and women to the space program.  

“The Space Race” documentary ends with the Black astronauts or “Afronauts” as they call themselves discussing the camaraderie that being involved in the space program has afforded them.  Even Ed Dwight is warmly embraced by the group as he continues to speak with Black astronauts about his experiences and encourages the next generation of space explorers in-between creating fascinating pieces of art.

“The Space Race” documents the journey into space exploration from the unique perspective of several Black astronauts.  Using archival footage and intimate interviews, National Geographic has put out a very compelling documentary about the history of NASA and the challenges Black astronauts faced while participating in the space exploration program.

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