According to NASA’s chief historian, Bill Barry, this one decision set a course that the space race would follow for years to come. “Once you do that,” he explained, “you bake in all of the stuff that’s already there. For example, that there are no African-Americans who are test pilots. There are no women who are test pilots.”
As Tom Wolfe described them in “The Right Stuff,” the first astronauts were “seven patriotic God-fearing small-town Protestant family men with excellent backing on the home front.” These would be America’s celestial heroes. They had camera-ready wives and families, and projected the camaraderie of an elite corps. Not surprisingly, those first space soldiers were all white.
On April 12, 1961, the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. The next month, in an address to a joint session of Congress, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to put Americans on the moon, declaring it necessary “if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.”
By that time, the broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow had become the director of the United States Information Agency, in charge of fighting the Cold War on the “hearts and minds” front. Watching the handsome Gagarin barnstorm Brazil, Japan, Liberia and other countries — and the screaming crowds that turned out for him — Murrow had an epiphany.
In September, he wrote to the administrator of NASA with what was essentially a bid for international diplomacy: “Why don’t we put the first non-white man in space? If your boys were to enroll and train a qualified Negro and then fly him in whatever vehicle is available, we could retell our whole space effort to the whole non-white world, which is most of it.”
With waves of countries emerging from colonial rule, the United States could not maintain credibility with Ghana, India, Indonesia or Nigeria, for instance, if much of America was still segregated.
“The map’s being divided into who’s pro-Soviet and who’s pro-U.S.A., and our astronauts are good-will ambassadors,” said the historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote “American Moonshot,” which was published this year. “We’re touting them around to show people the greatness of the American experiment. You put a person of color in space and it’ll show how noble our democracy is.”