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The Space Race centers Black astronauts’ stories. But it’s hurt by omissions and errors

The Space Race centers Black astronauts’ stories. But it’s hurt by omissions and errors
Astronaut Guion Bluford onboard STS-8, Endeavour's first trip to the International Space Station (Photo by NASA)

It’s astounding to reflect many, many people on this planet can remember when the idea of leaving it was an utter act of fiction. From GenX down, babies were born into a world orbited by a conquered Moon.

These generations saw that when we left the Earth, anyone of any race who wasn’t claustrophobic had at least a chance to go along. But just like the idea of departing the planet in the first place, the concept of expanding the astronaut corps past white males seemed a fairy tale for far too long.

The Space Race—from National Geographic (Monday, Feb. 12, at 9) and on Disney+ and Hulu—tackles the story of how Black astronauts became the norm at NASA. Its strongest technique is to use primarily period footage to link the narrative, allowing the ugliness of racial slurs and stereotypes to speak for themselves.

A Black astronaut in a helmet sitting at a console
Charlie Bolden aboard the space shuttle Columbia (Photo by NASA)

By avoiding a single narrator in favor of the voices of those who lived this history, the documentary spotlights the tremendous person-by-person damage that racism levies on careers, psyches, and entire families. Allowing those directly affected to speak for themselves is effective and convicting.

In some aspects, it does so nicely, with smart use of graphics to cue the passage of time and excellent period footage to link the narrative.

However, leaving certain first-person allegations unchallenged means that this decision also becomes a stumbling block. The Space Race over-relies on personal claims, as well as downright hearsay, and does not question erroneous or out of context information. It’s distressing to see a program with the National Geographic stamp put forth some serious charges without so much as a Wikipedia scroll.

Because the reality of oppression and racism in the United States is so painful, it’s a topic that demands honesty and thoughtful presentation. This is especially true when the target is a general audience seeking educational content—in other words, your average National Geographic or Disney+ viewer.

This isn’t an art film, and it wasn’t meant to be; it’s reasonable for the viewer to expect accurate and stabilized content from this august brand. By failing to fact-check several assertions and whizzing past topics that deserved more time, The Space Race does a disservice to the viewer as well as the topic.

A Black man climbs into a fighter jet holding a helmet in his hands
Air Force Captain Ed Dwight (Photo from Ed Dwight via NatGeo)

The primary channel of the narrative in The Space Race is Edward Dwight—on its face, an excellent choice, given his status as the first Black astronaut candidate. His presence is mandatory in this story.

Derailed by John F. Kennedy’s assassination, former test pilot Dwight was never selected to an astronaut class. NASA’s astronaut corps would not integrate for many more years.

However, this early section of the documentary contains claims that are… perhaps not exactly the full story. Viewers are told that Kennedy’s idea to integrate the astronaut corps came from Whitney Young during his candidacy, but Young’s biographer says the timelines for that to have taken place don’t match.

The documentary claims that the requirements for test pilots to apply as the first astronauts were purposely designed to exclude otherwise eligible Black candidates. There’s little doubt that the program had zero plans of trying to unify a Jim Crow nation behind Black astronauts, but the claim that an under-40 age limit was a cutoff aimed specifically at the Tuskegee Airmen deserves pause.

The average age of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II was 21. Some of these pilots would have indeed cleared the age limit. John Glenn, the oldest of the first astronaut group, was a contemporary of the Tuskegee Airmen in WWII; he was 38 when selected.

Also automatically ousted from consideration? Aviation legend Chuck Yeager, ineligible because he didn’t have a college degree.

Yeager is in the discussion only because The Space Race hauls him into it, accusing him of foiling Dwight because of his race. But Yeager’s Black wingman, Emmett Hatch, wrote that his experience of flying with Yeager was a life highlight.

As a human being, Yeager was the author of any number of …Really? moments, but Hatch describes him as a man who “stood between me and guys ready to jump me … Without a doubt, he saved my neck on several occasions.”

National Air and Space Museum curator Cathleen Lewis, in a Smithsonian documentary, is on record as questioning the narrative as well: “We don’t know if Chuck Yeager derailed Dwight’s career. And historians searched for evidence, and haven’t found it.”

These might seem small complaints within a sprawling story of shameful racism, but deciding to include such a grave accusation against a dead man merits at least a Google search first.

A person sitting in a chair gesturing; a boom mic is over their head
Ed Dwight being interviewed for The Space Race (Photo by Ryan Dearth/National Geographic)

The point is that despite the details, this grave subject deserves the highest standards of reporting. Dwight’s experience as a man who endured discrimination as well as several years as a PR prop, only to find himself discarded, is infuriating all on its own.

There are, unfortunately, plenty of compelling and factual examples of racism from this period—why not use one of them? By allowing speculation and embellishment, The Space Race critically and needlessly wounds its own integrity.

The equable star of the show is the man who really did become the first Black man in space, Guy Bluford.

Bluford was selected along with two other Black men, Ronald McNair and Fred Gregory, in the first astronaut class trained for the Space Shuttle.

Bluford compellingly describes himself as a kid who simply loved math, science, and airplanes. When he undertook his first mission in 1983, he pushed aside PR pressure and focused on the job, trusting his work to speak for himself. Dude just wanted to launch a satellite.

A Black man in a blue uniform smiles while floating inside a space shuttle
Astronaut Guion Bluford onboard STS-8, Endeavour’s first trip to the International Space Station (Photo by NASA)

Watching Bluford calmly float about his day with the rest of the crew—as though this were a perfectly normal thing, as it should be—is perhaps the most striking visual of the documentary.

Footage of an integrated crew as just that, sharing the cabin and executing a mission together, was the best possible conviction of an all-white space program.

The documentary’s emotional apex was a low point for NASA: The loss of Challenger in 1986. McNair was aboard, and Gregory was operating as CapCom (Capsule Communicator, an astronaut in Mission Control who speaks to the crew.) Bluford served several roles in the subsequent investigation and recovery; he was later tapped for Columbia’s as well. And Gregory was the first Black man to pilot and command an American spacecraft.

Their careers, along with others, further indicated the ascension of Black people to operational and leadership positions, a vital aspect of true integration that should have seen more attention in The Space Race.

Sadly overlooked was Michael P. Anderson, who was lost in the Columbia disaster. Anderson was an experienced pilot and a proponent of education, but The Space Race merely flashes his photo in a montage.

The first female Black astronaut, Mae Jemison, is barely mentioned.

So is The Space Race worth a watch? Not without a running disclaimer and appendix.

And that is a shame, because the documentary covers many significant moments that should appear in the conversation about the history of manned spaceflight, including those that aren’t easily measured, such Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols role in encouraging Black participation in STEM careers.

But it just takes on too much at once, and with its surprising refusal to verify some disturbing allegations, the documentary ultimately acts against its own interests. Given the importance of the subject, these pioneers deserve better.

Tell their stories.

Do them the honor of telling them accurately.

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Monday 12th of February 2024

Damn! This is some deep dish. Needs more views!