“Black history is American history. We forget it at our peril.”
– Charlie Bolden, former NASA astronaut and administrator
October 1st, 1958, NASA officially began operations working to break free from Earth and into orbit. It would be nearly 25 years later that Guion Bluford, aerospace engineer and pilot, would become the first Black astronaut. For some reason, however, when we discuss the achievements of American ingenuity to deliver on the promise President Kennedy made in his inauguration address, names like Bluford’s are entirely left out. We know the names of Sally Ride as the first American woman in space; Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert of Apollo 13; Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of Apollo 11; and Alan Shepard, John Glenn, and Gus Grissom from Mercury 7. These names are regularly taught in schools and memorialized whether at the official NASA space camp or any NASA memorial. But what of Bernard Harris, Charlie Bolden, or Ed Dwight, the first Black officer to join NASA as an astronaut, to name a few? Their stories are as significant as the ones that are etched into the imaginations of any person who looks to the sky and dares to consider battling gravity in an effort to break through the atmosphere and into the stars. Thanks to co-directors Diego Hurtado de Mendoza and Lisa Cortés, audiences will have an opportunity to explore an aspect of NASA through a lens too often kept hidden or underrepresented.
One of the boogiemen of the modern era is Critical Race Theory (CRT). It’s been set aside recently in favor of attacks on the LGBTQIA+ community, but for the time it sat in the limelight, the arguments of CRT being taught in secondary schools was fabricated because the idea that racism is so systemic to the socio-political/cultural fabric of America that the only response the Conservative portion of the country could muster was to clutch pearls and worry over what the white children would think. Why should the current generation be taught about what occurred in the past when the future is where we should focus? Simply put: just because something is past, doesn’t mean it’s done or over. More importantly, the decisions of the past possess incredible ramifications for the future, many of which were shaped through a racist and misogynistic view. After exploring Cuban boxing in his 2018 co-directed feature The People’s Fighters: Teofilo Stevenson and the Legend of Cuban Boxing and after exploring the history of voting in American in her 2020 co-directed feature All In: The Fight for Democracy, de Mendoza and Cortés (respectively) turned to each other to investigate the stories of the People of Color within the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) whose contributions to the space race have been overlooked in a way that’s almost entirely purposeful.
To navigate the mostly chronological story, de Mendoza and Cortés incorporate brand-new talking head interviews with as many of the prominent Black members (past and present) of NASA, as well as utilize news footage, print articles, and photos to invigorate what is, essentially, a lesson involving a corner of history perhaps unknown to all who watch it. Amusingly, and in a way that amplifies the sense that there’s more we, the audience, don’t know, there’s a story told that came to a surprise of one of the participants, an individual who was in the process of collecting all of the known information into one place. Surprises only go so far and, luckily, the presentation of the doc as a whole is invigorating, even at its most anger-inducing or somber, as though a light switch is being turned on as we can finally see puzzle pieces that have been kept from us, the picture visible and understandable before, but more complete with the new additions. Sometimes this means archival footage of John F. Kennedy on the campaign trail or in office, sometimes it’s protest footage at the site of a launch, sometimes it’s press conferences that contradict public record of who was involved in what project and underscore just how little the Black officers in the military were viewed as part of the collective, let alone a part of American citizenry. It certainly helps that once the inclusion of the Black community is more acceptable in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, de Mendoza and Cortés utilize needle drops of the era, channeling the sounds of the community as a way of creating correlation between arts, culture, politics, and sciences and the contributions that are widely beloved (Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Parliament, being two). The documentary could, and with good reason, opt to focus on the struggle, but, instead, opts to present the past as factual prelude to where we are now by capturing and maintaining the audience’s sense of wonder or joy about what NASA does, even when facts come to light that should shame anyone with a conscience. By incorporating materials that highlight how the Black community raised up NASA as a whole despite evidence of systemic pushback, de Mendoza and Cortés give the audience a gift of knowledge that empowers them to continue to push forward.
Though there doesn’t appear to be, on paper, too much overlap between the teams who worked on All In and The Space Race, there is a similarity in that this doc (like the others) pulsated with energy, urgency, and positivity. The past is not past, but it is what is was and it should no longer be. If nothing else, the context of the decisions by the American government in the 1960s and those involved, like Ed Dwight, are still with us and, therefore, should not be considered antiquated. As the documentary points out, it takes generations for social change to occur and some who fought for civil rights prior to the Civil Rights Movement are still here. This also means that those who were opposed to it (and their spawn) may likely remain opposed to further integration. Enter the Proud Boys, the return of public displays of Nazism, and fascism. So to argue that we no longer need to examine the past for the communities that are so often cut out of the history books because things have changed is, at best, idealistic, and, at worst, willfully ignorant. Things haven’t changed enough to where the history taught in schools is as unbiased as possible, where the stories printed for our children to learn don’t remove the names of important figures just because their skin color isn’t the same as the dominant community of a region. If I, a Jewish kid from Virginia, could be surrounded by monuments for the losers of the Civil War, information still passed down in our books as heroes to be remembered, then why can’t I learn about Ed Dwight, the accomplished aviator who almost became the first Black astronaut? Or Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, the first Person of Color in space? Or any other non-white individual who has become the go-to standard for American exceptionalism?
de Mendoza and Cortés unequivocally demonstrate that the stories we don’t know, that are willfully kept from us, will change how we engage with our society. In the learning, a stronger community can form, such as what exists within the Black astronaut community presented in the documentary, but also within the country at large. Knowledge can and should be free so that we can raise each other up. As Charlie Bolden states, “Black history is American history. We forget it at our peril.” But by exploring, learning, and remembering we can all soar.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Tribeca Film Festival 2023 The Space Race webpage.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.