National Geographic Blasts Off With ‘The Space Race,’ Documentary On NASA’s Black Astronauts – Reaching For The Stars, Tethered By Racial Prejudice

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EXCLUSIVE: For NASA’s pioneering Black astronauts, gravity wasn’t the only barrier impeding them from reaching the highest heights. They also faced another implacable force, in the form of racial bias.

National Geographic Documentary Films today announced filmmakers Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza will direct and produce The Space Race, a feature documentary “that will uncover the little-known stories of the first Black pilots, engineers and scientists to become astronauts” and the obstacles that impacted their trajectory. Frank Marshall and Tony Rosenthal of The Kennedy/Marshall Company will executive produce the film, along with Carolyn Bernstein of National Geographic Documentary Films and Leland Melvin. The project will be produced by Kennedy/Marshall’s Alexandra Bowen and Aly Parker, Diamond Docs’ Mark Monroe and independent producer Keero Birla. Monroe (Icarus, Lucy and Desi) will also serve as the film’s writer.

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Astronaut Ed Dwight is interviewed for 'The Space Race.'
Astronaut Ed Dwight is interviewed for ‘The Space Race.’

The Space Race weaves together the stories of Black astronauts seeking to break the bonds of social injustice to reach for the stars, including Guion Bluford, Ed Dwight and Charles Bolden among many others,” National Geographic Documentary Films said in a statement. “Addressing the racial injustice within NASA across several decades, the film will follow these pioneers who fought to overcome not just the obstacles of their astronaut training but also the challenges that stemmed from the racial prejudice and discrimination present at the time. The Space Race will highlight how their perseverance challenged the definition of ‘the right stuff,’ even when their stories were omitted from the history books.”

The film will be available exclusively on National Geographic Channels and Disney+. No release date has been set.

National Geographic Documentary Films logo
National Geographic Documentary Films logo

“It has been a pleasure to work with co-directors Lisa Cortés and Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, along with our friends at Kennedy/Marshall, to tell the inspiring, courageous stories of pioneering Black astronauts,” said Carolyn Bernstein, executive vice president of documentary films for National Geographic. “We feel honored to give these trailblazers center stage in the narrative around U.S. space exploration.”

NatGeo describes The Space Race as “a film about connectivity, community, mentorship and the importance of trailblazers.”

“The exploration of space has always been a place of hope and inspiration,” Cortés and Hurtado de Mendoza said in a statement. “From space, we look out into the Universe and learn about our place in it, but we also look back at Earth and learn about ourselves. A select group of astronauts are the only human beings who’ve ever seen all of humanity from this unique point of view — with its infinite possibilities and its debilitating flaws. We couldn’t have found a more supportive partner than National Geographic Documentary Films to tell the story of these brave pioneers in space exploration who opened the space program to people of color.”

Director Lisa Cortés.
Director Lisa Cortés.

Cortés’ filmmaking credits include executive producing Precious, the 2009 drama that won two Academy Awards and was nominated for an additional four. At the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year she unveiled two projects — the documentary Little Richard: I Am Everything, which she directed and produced, and Invisible Beauty, the documentary about Black fashion industry pioneer Bethann Hardison, which Cortés produced. The Emmy-winning HBO documentary The Apollo (2019), which Cortés produced, explores African American cultural and political history through the story of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Cortés also co-directed All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020), which traces the violent history of the struggle for voting rights. In an earlier stage of her career as a music executive, Cortés helped launch the careers of Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys.

Director Diego Hurtado de Mendoza.
Director Diego Hurtado de Mendoza.

Hurtado de Mendoza’s credits include The Redeem Team, about the 2008 U.S. Men’s Olympic Basketball team; The People’s Fighters: Teofilo Stevenson and the Legend of Cuban Boxing; The Iron Hammer, about Chinese gold medal-winning volleyball star Lang Ping, and Rulon Gardner Won’t Die, a 2021 documentary about the Olympic Greco-Roman wrestling champion.

National Geographic’s robust slate of upcoming films includes the Untitled Carl Sagan Documentary, which Deadline reported about Thursday, and Endurance (working title) a documentary by Oscar winners Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin about the bold mission to find the wreck of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which sank near Antarctica over a hundred years ago. NatGeo’s Fire of Love earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature this year and NatGeo’s Free Solo, directed by Vasarhelyi and Chin, won the Academy Award in that category in 2019.

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