Space, Race & the Fires Below!

Five days after George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee, the sleek Crew Dragon rocket soared into Florida’s skies. Americans were invited to ‘stop everything’ to watch a live stream of the launch. A collaboration between NASA and Elon Musk’s Space X company, it was the first commercial craft to bear astronauts from US soil to the ISS space station. Cameras captured astonishing close-ups of the rocket’s first stage plunging back to Earth for a perfect landing on a drone-ship. Billed as a ‘Launch America’ mission, the event saw President Trump boast of making America ‘number one on Earth’ and ‘making space great again’. Yet even as NASA director Jim Bridenstine evoked the spirit of 1969 ‘to bring people together’, the country was convulsed with #BlackLivesMatter protests. For all the suspense and glory of that fiery cigarette stub streaking through the blue, it couldn’t distract us from the cities burning below. If anything, their juxtaposition only recalled the Space Race’s dark subtext.

Credit NASA: Leland Melvin

Not everyone in the space community was happy to wrap the Crew Dragon launch in the Stars & Stripes and break out the bubbly. A powerful Space.Com article noted key voices speaking out against the triumphalism: ‘The inspiration that human spaceflight brings cannot erase the anger and pain felt by communities around the United States who are reeling from violence and racial injustice.’ Retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, spoke painfully in a video about the George Floyd murder and a ‘pandemic’ of police violence against black men. Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work in NASA’s Mission Control, also acknowledged mixed emotions in her tweet: ‘The launch today was a marvel of teamwork and a powerful demonstration of technical prowess. But I find no joy in it with so many in pain from racial injustice and with the images of our cities in chaos. I thought 1968 was bad.

In fact, by 1968 the Apollo missions had become a target for Civil Rights protestors who dismissed NASA’s budget as a waste of resources when contrasted with black poverty. The same message was echoed in Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon 1976 protest song. “A rat done bit my sister Nell / With Whitey on the moon / Her face and arms began to swell / And Whitey’s on the moon.” Fifty years later, Afro-Americans are still twice as likely to have no medical insurance and a recent study suggests they are dying at three times the rates of whites from Covid 19.

Last summer, a ground-breaking PBS* documentary Chasing the Moon featured the story of Ed Dwight Jr., an Afro-American selected in 1962 for astronaut training. Billed as NASA’s first Black Astronaut-to-be, Dwight faced institutional racism and hostility within the training programme. Despite the media and White House hype, he was never deemed to have the ‘Right Stuff’ for Apollo’s astronaut roster. Instead, all 12 Apollo astronauts to visit the moon were white males. It took till 1983 for Guion Stewart Bluford Jr. to become the first black American in space. Last weekend the faces in those sleek sci-fi suits for the historic CREW Dragon mission, Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, were once again white and male.

Credit NASA: Von Braun & Kennedy view Saturn V Rocket 1963

Even the monumental technology of the Apollo space programme was tainted with the memory of genocide. The Saturn V rocket was designed by Wernher von Braun, a former Nazi scientist. His V-2 rocket was built at Peenemunde in Germany during WW2 and later by concentration camp prisoners at Mittelwerk. Conditions were described by survivors as ‘the hell of all concentration camps’ and they later accused von Braun of being ‘intimately involved’ in its war crimes. Yet von Braun and his team of Peenemunders were scooped up by US intelligence officers in 1945 to aid America’s weapons programme. Von Braun’s past was quickly classified under Operation Paperclip. As Von Braun’s biographer Wayne Biddle said, ‘‘No other public figure of the twentieth-century was forgiven so much so that he be allowed to pursue his dream.’ The V-2 rocket provided the template for US ICBMs and eventually for the mighty Saturn V.

‘It bears the burden of a decade’s cultural detonations:

thrumming radio waves of rock music Werner hates;

test bombs he sets off inside his engines; shots that ignite

a chain reaction of riots, live rounds, assassinations.

(Saturn V poem, Desert Moonfire)

Sixties protesters were more concerned however with that contemporary ‘war criminal’, President Nixon, who was prosecuting the Vietnam War. Instead of today’s pandemic, it was the war which was killing as many as 1,000 Americans a month in 1968. Astronaut Frank Borman recalled being sent by Nixon to US campuses to promote the Apollo mission and being met with ‘antagonism and hatred’ from students. These anti-war students and Civil right protesters were facing their own torrent of police brutality. Two years later, four unarmed Kent State University students were shot dead by the Ohio National Guard.

Little wonder then that many commentators are finding echoes between the current protests and the brutal response faced by the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties. The killing of George Floyd and too many others are seen as ‘state lynchings’ that have tended to go unpunished. Right in the midst of this conflict, alongside a world pandemic with its ensuing economic Depression, America is vying with other countries in a second Space Race to colonise the Moon. That has to raise urgent questions about what motivates this ambition and what values will guide its project. As the conclusion of our recent title Desert Moonfire: The Men Who Raced to Space concludes:

Media footage of 1969 captured a divided and awestruck world in that moment of lift-off. In a new century, the Lunar Landing is a byword for what we can attain when our technology and curiosity collide. As we gear up for a ‘New Space Race’ amidst ecological crisis, we might consider what story we want to write on our skies this time round.’

*  The documentary Chasing the Moon is replaying on UK television this month on BBC4.