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.
One of the things that’s always fascinated me about humans in space is their profound seclusion. Think about cosmonauts cooped up in those tiny modules of the Space Age. Or those Apollo Lunar Commanders who sailed around the Far Side of the Moon utterly alone, out of Comms. reach. Even with his strumming guitar, who could be lonelier than Bowie’s Major Tom communing with a crackly Ground Control? ‘I'm feeling very still.’ So as we Earthlings weather a lockdown we never trained for, what can we learn from astronauts who’ve been doing this for years?