As Apollo 11 sat on the launch pad, ready to complete what is arguably the most impressive technical achievement in history, a group of protesters marched towards Cape Kennedy. Had he not been assassinated a year earlier, Martin Luther King Jr. would have led the march. In his place was his best friend, Ralph Abernathy, who took over King’s role as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. As Abernathy put it, the protest was not against the Apollo program per se, but to “protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.” As we live in a democracy, proponents of space exploration should be prepared to answer the question, how does the space program benefit the poor and the general public?
These thoughts came back to me while watching I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary on James Baldwin. There is a tendency to think of the 1950’s and 60’s as when America was great. Certainly, the economy was booming and middle class wages were rising, but as the documentary detailed, America was suffering from terrible social strife. Progress was made legislatively on civil rights, but there were race riots in the cities claiming scores of lives along with a general spike in violent crime. It was against this backdrop that the Apollo program existed.
There is the standard argument that the funds spent on the space program are minuscule compared to the overall federal budget. And that is true, NASA’s spending is about 0.5% of the budget and peaked during the Apollo era at 5%. Current spending on NASA comes out to $60 per person per year. So is NASA just a highly publicized target for protest? I think we have to look at the problem in a different light. That being a policy of resource/education deprivation certain portions of the American population have endured in our history.
Resource deprivation is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. If people are struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis, it makes it more difficult to sustain political resistance. The history of African-Americans is certainly one of life under authoritarianism, from slavery to Jim Crow era lynchings and segregation. And while significant improvements on that front have been made the past few decades, African-Americans continue to experience the impact of historical resource deprivation in terms of household wealth.
A key historical component of segregation was job discrimination. During its early years, NASA ranked at the bottom of all federal agencies when it came to minority hiring. While the book and subsequent movie, aptly named Hidden Figures, reveals crucial contributions to the Apollo program by African-Americans, the public face of NASA, the astronauts and mission control, were all white. It was this facade that led Gil Scott-Heron to record Whitey on the Moon.
So where do we go with this? NASA has improved the diversity of its workforce greatly. Kennedy Space Center employees are currently 27% minority. While that helps those employed by NASA, what about Americans who live in poverty? If one is segregated from the space program, you have no reason to support it, but that is true of any endeavor. It’s no different than building a shopping mall without access to public transit, or a museum, or schools that are inaccessible to minorities. The key to long-term sustainability is to integrate the benefits of the space program to all corners of society.
The Apollo program lacked this sustainability. Once the political aim of beating the Soviet Union to the Moon was achieved, the Apollo program was cancelled during the recession of the early 1970’s. Lost was the science phase of the program – Apollo missions 18-20. In fact, support for the Apollo program among the American public was tepid. The only time more than half the public approved expenditures on Apollo was briefly in 1969 during the first Moon landing. And even then, approval was only 53 percent. The key to changing this is to turn space exploration from a “spectator sport” to one the public can actively participate in.
One obvious way of achieving this is integrating NASA research in K-12 education. The amounts of data pouring in from NASA missions often require the efforts of citizen science to sort through it all. Such an effort also requires educator training since many teachers, especially in high-need districts, teach outside their specialty. And this effort should seek to aggressively reach out to the districts highest in need. If successful, a public actively engaged in space exploration will tend to be more supportive of it. Is exploring space worth this time and effort?
Perhaps the most important aspect of space exploration is understanding how the Earth fits in the universe. Right now, there are no other planets where humanity can commence a mass migration. Colonizing Mars, while feasible, is much more difficult than living in Antarctica, where only a few dozen scientists live at any given time. We may discover Earth-like planets around other stars, but traveling to them as seen in Star Trek or Star Wars will not occur in our lifetimes, if at all. Understanding this, and the fragile protections Earth offers humanity from a universe largely hostile to life, underscores the urgency in solving key environmental issues such as climate change.
Astronomy is among the most ubiquitous of the sciences. Across all the continents and spanning throughout history, civilizations have sought out answers to what lies in the sky above them. Nations that have been economically and socially healthy have been ones who have made the greatest advancements in astronomy. Recently, the Trump administration has floated ambitious plans to return to the Moon by 2020. By nature, space enthusiasts have jumped on the bandwagon. However, as history has shown, if the United States also embarks on a program of resource deprivation such as repealing ACA, cutting Medicare, and turning education over to for-profit interests, public support for space exploration spending will not only be weak, but hostile. The protest led by Ralph Abernathy in 1968 will look like a Sunday picnic by comparison.
During the Apollo program, it was often suggested that the management methods of the space program could be transferred towards solving poverty. The space program cannot solve poverty, nor should it claim to be capable of that. However, the space program can play a partnership role with the rest of the government and private entities toward that goal. If we really want a sustained effort to go to the Moon, Mars, and beyond, it will have to be within an overall framework of a civilization that values inclusiveness and equality. As Ralph Abernathy stated after watching the launch of Apollo 11:
“This is really holy ground. And it will be more holy once we feed the hungry, care for the sick, and provide for those who do not have houses.”
*Image atop post is Apollo 11 on the launchpad during the early morning hours of July 16, 1969. Credit: NASA.