Canadian Black Scientists Network screens doc on Black astronauts as part of its advocacy efforts

"This is a beautiful, artistic film that gives people a sense of the actual emotions involved in what we’re fighting for"
Guy Bluford trains in the Shuttle Mission Simulator in 1983

Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African American in space in 1983. His story is showcased in documentary The Space Race, which is being screened by the Canadian Black Scientists Network (photo by NASA CCO Images)

Maydianne Andrade first watched The Space Race a few months ago while preparing for a post-screening panel – one of countless events she has been involved in as a higher education leader and co-founder of the Canadian Black Scientists Network

Focused on the little-known stories of Black astronauts, the documentary left an impression on the evolutionary ecologist. So, she decided to watch it a second time. 

Now, together with partners across Canada, the Canadian Black Scientists Network (CBSN) is screening the film in cities across the country as part of its Black History Month programming – including an event Wednesday at the University of Toronto Scarborough

“A lot of Black communities, including scientists, value the arts and humanities,” says Andrade, University Professor in U of T Scarborough’s department of biological sciences. “It’s critical to engage through the arts to help people not just learn about statistics but feel it.”

Following Wednesday’s screening, Andrade – who is also a member of the steering committee for the Black Research Network, one of the university’s institutional strategic initiatives – will be joined by Rene Harrison, a professor of biological sciences at U of T Scarborough, to discuss the film and how its themes resonate through today.

CBSN leaders meet at the 2024 Black History Month celebration at the Canadian Museum of History. Left to right: Chinyere Nwafor-Okoli, Trevor Charles and Maydianne Andrade (supplied image)

The Space Race reframes the history of U.S. space exploration through interviews with several pioneers of NASA’s space program – the first Black pilots, engineers and scientists in their journey to become astronauts. Starting in the 1960s civil rights era, the film leads up to the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the racial reckoning that followed.

It includes the story of Ed Dwight, a U.S. Air Force pilot who would have become the first Black astronaut when he was chosen by President John F. Kennedy to join a pilot program at the Edwards Air Force Base. His hopes came to a halt after Kennedy’s 1963 assassination when he wasn’t selected for the NASA program. 

In 1983, Guion “Guy” Bluford became the first African American astronaut to go to space.

Andrade says many of the issues raised in the film are still relevant, including the need to better support Black and Indigenous students who are interested in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math and Medicine) subjects.  

“We have data in Canada that shows Black youth are streamed out of STEMM programs. The issues are still current,” Andrade says. “We want to shine a light on things that still need to be fixed and have those conversations.”

Shaping the future of STEMM

 Launched in 2020, the CBSN is a national coalition of more than 700 members that works to elevate, connect and celebrate Black Canadians pursuing advanced degrees in STEMM. It advocates for equitable practices in funding and works to enhance the visibility of Black researchers in the field and increase retention of Black youth. That includes providing mentorship and opportunities to realize a career in STEMM through its Youth Science Fair.  

CBSN-Youth delegates from Halifax at the Canada-wide science fair in 2023: Silver medalist Joy Akinkunmi (left) and bronze medalist Munir Al-Taher (supplied image)

The film screenings mark the launch of the CBSN’s Regional Nodes, associations of CBSN members and allies across Canada who support local programming and outreach. Regional Nodes are currently located in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, with connections in Atlantic Canada through local partners. 

“This is a beautiful, artistic film that gives people a sense of the actual emotions involved in what we’re fighting for. It’s about community and support,” Andrade says. 

 “I want people to understand the joy involved and how much we want to participate in these fields.”