When he was 4 years old, Ed Dwight built an airplane out of orange crates from Safeway in the backyard of his house in Kansas City, Kansas.
But while growing up in a segregated Kansas City in the 1930s and 1940s, he never dreamed that he could be an airplane pilot.
And he certainly didn't think he'd be the first African-American to train as an astronaut for NASA.
But then, a local newspaper changed the course of his life.
He was a paperboy for the The Kansas City Call and the The Kansas City Kansan. One day, he picked up his papers for delivery, and the front page of The Call featured a big photo of a black pilot standing on the wing of an F-86 Sabrejet.
That pilot, Dayton Ragland, was a Kansas City, Missouri native who had been shot down over North Korea and held as a prisoner of war.
"And I wigged out," Dwight told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard. "I said, 'This is insane. I didn't even know they let black pilots get anywhere near airplanes.' And why didn’t I know this?"
That front-page photo raised all sorts of questions for Dwight: "Where did he get trained? How did he get in the military? How did all this stuff happen right before my nose?”
“And so that encouraged me. When I saw that guy standing on the front of that plane, I wasn't concerned about him getting shot down; I was more rapt about the idea of him flying a jet," he said.
From a young age, Dwight had been interested in flight — of all kinds. He was obsessed with art since he could walk, he said. After his priest got him into birdwatching, he started drawing birds. He turned his attention to sketching airplanes when KCK’s Fairfax assembly plant, which was about a mile from his house, turned into a training base for fighter pilots during World War II.
"I was most curious about where they had been when they came to land, and where were they going when they took off?" he said. "They’ve got to be going or coming back from some exotic place that wasn't where I was."
School came easily to him, he said. He started preschool at 2, and his mom started taking him to the library when he was 4, he said.
As a teen, he would go to the Northeast Junior High School library to read about Nazi Germany. He was interested because they had an air force. While he was there, he also studied flight manuals, which had multiple-choice tests at the end of each chapter.
While he was in college, getting his degree in aeronautical engineering, he wanted information on how to apply to be a pilot. He ended up writing to the Pentagon, which sent a team to his school. He was the first one in line, he said, and they sent 33 students to Denver to test for pilot training.
They had to take a battery of tests. When Dwight sat down to take them, he thought “I’ve seen this before.”
It turns out that the tests were the same as the ones he had taken in the flight manuals in the Northeast Junior High School library. He was the only one of the 33 who passed.
He joined the U.S. Air Force and did really well, he said; he was promoted to captain and on a fast track to being a general. He was also working on his master’s at the University of California, Berkeley in nuclear engineering.
Then, in November 1961, he got a letter from the Pentagon at the direction of John F. Kennedy’s White House: Would he be interested in being a candidate to be the “first Negro astronaut” and going to test pilot school?
“I thought it was a joke, obviously,” he said. “Going to space was not on my bucket list.”
Despite his concerns about leaving a culture he knew — and one where his career was set — he entered the flight test program.
During his four years in the program, he saw only two other African-Americans in the entire industry, he said. One was a draftsman at one of the companies they visited; the other was a project manager for another company.
He also experienced a lot of racism.
“The whole experience ... really broke my faith in human behavior,” he said. From the beginning, he added, the instructors told some of the other students that “Kennedy is trying to cram a N-word down our throats and we cannot let that happen.” So, they were told, don’t speak to him, don’t socialize with him, make life uncomfortable for him so that he will quit.
Later, one of his classmates confessed that the instructors told the students to isolate and make life miserable for him, and apologized for the abuse.
Dwight never made it to space.
There was resistance in the U.S. House and Senate to the idea of an African-American or a female astronaut at that early stage of the space program, he said, because that would diminish the stature of the first seven astronauts.
According to Dwight, they had to be kept as heroes to appeal to the tax base, which funded NASA.
“If you put a black in that mix, the public would say, ‘if a black guy can do it or if a woman can do it … these guys are not heroes, these guys are just regular people,’” he said.
Dwight left the military in 1966. He now lives out his childhood dream of being an artist in Denver, Colorado, where he creates sculptures, large-scale memorials and public art projects.
He says he now has a different attitude about space.
“I’m fascinated with space,” he said. “Because every time somebody does something in space, in my memory bank, I say, ‘How would I have handled that? What would I have done differently?’”
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.