Taking on an expansive topic, the contribution of Black astronauts to the American space program, Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza’s “The Space Race” derives its strength from the specific and detailed stories of its subjects. Spanning almost 60 years of historical narrative and concentrating on a handful of scientists who broke barriers, the National Geographic doc is the type that makes the audience question how they have never heard of these people before.
Cortés and de Mendoza interweave archival footage with the testimony of the astronauts in a fast-paced and informative way. Rapidly unraveling the fascinating story, they demand the audience’s attention and reward it. Blink or look away for a second and an interesting factoid might be missed. But their greatest asset proves to be the astronauts themselves. Their recollections are emotional and humorous, going a long way to paint such a captivating narrative. The astronauts talk of the weight of being an example and the challenges of having to navigate both white and Black spaces in order to succeed. Yet most movingly, they talk of the camaraderie born of being together in these hallowed and mostly white spaces.
The historical and cultural context in which the interviews are presented makes them even more entertaining. Most people know the late Nichelle Nichols and her role as Uhura in TV’s “Star Trek,” but fewer probably realize that she was a spokesperson for NASA tasked with recruiting Black people and women to the space program. The film also weaves in other cultural figures, such as author Octavia Butler, whose sci- fi books dared to imagine Black people in outer space and were a major part of the afrofuturism movement. Historically, the conflict of some civil rights leaders with NASA, the race with the USSR — which managed to get a person of color into space first by sending a Cuban astronaut — and the devastating effect of the Challenger disaster, give the film broader dimensions.
But it’s the astronauts’ personal memories that make this film engaging. The story starts with Ed Dwight, who was chosen in the early 1960s to join the space program and become what he terms “the first negro in space.” His nomination was a political one, born of John F. Kennedy’s desire to win the Black vote. And so it was a rather rocky experience. He was never accepted by his peers nor his superiors. In fact he was intimidated and told he only got where he did because of his race. The PR machine put extra stress on him and his family. He wasn’t fully accepted by Black organizations, like the NAACP, who wanted him to talk more about the civil rights movement. When Kennedy was assassinated, he was unceremoniously let go. Despite the setbacks he faced, what comes through is Dwight’s humor and pride in being a part of this history, even if he ultimately didn’t accomplish all his goals.
As the story moves into the 1970s and ’80s, it expands to cover more astronauts, including some who remained unknown until now because their missions were classified. Others — Guion Bluford, Ron McNair, Charles Bolden and Fredrick Gregory — have to compete with each to become the first to reach space. Yet, as they tell it, that wasn’t on their minds at all. The emotion in their voices and the way they recall how they navigated NASA together and separately, reveals friendship, even as the film also captures a note of remorse that they weren’t always aware of the commonality of their experiences.
“The Space Race ” tells the story of how these men — “afronauts,” as they call themselves — came together to excavate their history, how they formed a smaller more meaningful community from within the larger organizational structure and how this community managed to help support one another through more recent significant events, like the murder of George Floyd. In telling the specific moving stories of a few men, “The Space Race” manages to provide such a rich perspective into their experience that it transcends its goals of shining a light on worthy lives and untold history, to entertain and educate.