The False Hope of an American Rocket Launch

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken walk out of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 30.

NASA astronauts Douglas Hurley, left, and Robert Behnken walk out of the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., May 30. John Raoux/AP

Even in the tumultuous Apollo era, the feats of the country’s space program were a momentary diversion, not a national salve.

Joalda Morancy was on the bus headed downtown this weekend when she realized what time it was. In a few minutes, NASA astronauts were going to launch to space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Morancy found the live-stream on her phone and watched the engines ignite and the rocket rise like a blazing candle into the sky. As the bus came to a stop, Morancy tucked her phone away and stepped onto the curb, joining the thousands of people who had converged in the heart of Chicago to protest the police killings of black Americans.

Morancy is a college sophomore, studying geophysics and astrophysics. She wants to be an astronaut someday, and she didn’t want to miss the launch on Saturday. But she also wanted to do her part, she told me, to stand in peaceful demonstration for the rights of people who look like her.

“If I look back on this day in the future, I want to know that I was doing all I could for the protests and doing everything I could to just help,” Morancy said, “instead of just sitting at home and watching a space launch.”

Over the weekend, SpaceX flew two astronauts to the International Space Station on NASA’s behalf, a first in spaceflight history. NASA officials have spent months hyping the mission as a bright spot in dark times, and pointed to other milestones still to come: Under President Donald Trump, the United States is working to send Americans to the moon again in less than four years.

And while history might not necessarily repeat, it does rhyme. On the day of the SpaceX launch, Vice President Mike Pence touched on these parallels. The Apollo missions, he said, were “a symbol of national strength and unity” that “rose above the tumult and the clamor of their times.”

But the image of a nation united in the common purpose of delivering its people to the heavens is a false memory. Even before the recent demonstrations began, the SpaceX launch wasn’t going to be the center of national attention. That message of unity felt discordant when the biggest story in the country was a pandemic killing thousands of Americans every week, many of them black and Latino Americans, under the watch of a government unequipped to handle the virus. The dissonance has grown even more apparent as protests have sprung up in all 50 states.

Space travel has inspired Americans, but it has never united them—not in the late ’60s, and certainly not in the present moment. The feats of America’s space program, then and now, are a momentary diversion, not a national salve.

Morancy is too young to have lived it, but the confluence of a historic rocket launch and civil-rights protests feels to her like a terrible rerun of another painful year in American history, with a few plot changes. In 1968, as the U.S. was rocked by the worst of the Vietnam War, political assassinations, and police brutality against black people, NASA was trying to go to the moon. In 2020, as the country grapples with a deadly pandemic, the worst unemployment crisis since the Great Depression, and police brutality against black Americans, NASA is, once again, trying to go to the moon.

In 1968, the year before Apollo 11 went to the moon—the year my colleague James Fallows recently described as “the most traumatic year in modern American history”—the public was consumed by turmoil unfolding on the ground.

In April, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead in Memphis, and protests flared in more than 100 U.S. cities. Two months later, Robert F. Kennedy, the senator who championed civil rights, met the same end in Los Angeles as he campaigned for the presidency. Meanwhile, reports out of Vietnam grew more horrifying, with dozens of Americans killed every day, and many more Vietnamese, in combat and covered-up massacres.

From the perspective of American spaceflight, 1968 ended on a high note. In late December of that year, the crew of Apollo 8 circled the moon, becoming the first humans to travel to another world. When the astronauts came home, Frank Borman, the mission’s commander, received a telegram from a fan thanking the crew: “You saved 1968.” The anecdote stuck, and over the years, it has bolstered the myth that Americans wholeheartedly supported the space effort and the nation’s zeal for beating the Soviets to the moon.

But for most of the 1960s, the majority of Americans consistently believed that the Apollo program wasn’t worth the cost, according to the space historian Roger Launius. On the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, King’s closest friend and second in command, led a group of demonstrators to Cape Canaveral to tell the NASA administrator that the country should focus on taking care of its poor instead of sending people to the moon.

The moon landing in July 1969 certainly captured Americans’ attention, and even, for a brief moment, felt worth the trouble; according to Launius, one poll taken at the time of the landing showed, for the first time, that a majority of Americans supported the effort. The broadcast from the lunar surface drew the largest TV audience in history to date. But the accomplishment didn’t leave the same mark on the American imagination. Where the moon landing took humankind’s exploration of the cosmos to new heights and sparked a generation of engineers, it inspired the poet and soul musician Gil Scott-Heron to write “Whitey on the Moon,” a song that captured the disparate experiences of white and black Americans.

It’s Neil Armstrong’s famous “one small step” line, however, that has impressed itself in the national conscience—and so too the image of a man in a spacesuit next to the American flag. Only many decades later did the public learn of the stories of Ed Dwight, the black man who almost became a NASA astronaut in 1962, or of Katherine Johnson and other black female mathematicians who contributed to the Apollo project, calculating the trajectories of the country’s most important flights beyond Earth.

Polls show that support for the moon landing has actually risen over the years; 77 percent of people in 1989 thought the Apollo program was worth it, compared with just 47 percent a decade earlier. It is easy, now, to look back and pull from that moment the glossiest view of America, a pretty lie that sounds better in the history books than the real story. It is easy to say that humanity’s desire to explore the cosmos managed to bring together a divided nation.

Why not now?

On the day of the recent launch, Trump was at Cape Canaveral, vamping from behind a lectern about the state of the space program under his leadership. “When Americans are united, there is nothing we cannot do,” he said.

The threat of white police officers and vigilantes to black communities long predates Trump, to be sure, and platitudes such as this would have felt hollow under the previous administration too. But Trump’s divisive rhetoric has been stoking the unrest. The morning of the launch, before he flew to Florida, Trump had alluded to deploying “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen” against protesters outside the White House. By then, he had already called demonstrators in Minneapolis, where police had killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes, “thugs.” Trump had also tweeted that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a phrase that dates back to the 1960s, when it was used by a segregationist politician and a white police chief. He was still a few days from threatening the use of military force to “dominate” protesters and staging a bizarre photo op on a sidewalk that law enforcement cleared by teargassing demonstrators.

Charles Bolden Jr., the former NASA administrator under Barack Obama, drove from Virginia to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch. Bolden, the first African American to lead the space agency, didn’t stick around for Trump’s speech, but he caught some of it later, including the president’s call for unity. “I found it ironic that that was the president’s theme when half the problem is him,” Bolden told me on a call during his drive back home. “You can’t unify the country when the country doesn’t have a unifying leader.”

In 1968, Bolden was a young graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and bound for Vietnam. He was mesmerized by the moon landing, but he didn’t think about becoming an astronaut until later; he had grown up in the segregated South, and “becoming an astronaut was not something in the list of things that a young black kid from South Carolina did.” For him, the resemblances between America in the 1960s and America today are stark.

Half a century later, the American space program looks quite different. The pace of change has been slow; it took NASA two decades after Alan Shepard’s historic flight in 1961 to send the first African American astronaut, Guion Bluford, to space. But today, the astronaut corps is at least no longer made up of a bunch of white guys with military buzz cuts.

Unlike the Apollo program, the Trump administration’s moon effort—named Artemis, for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology—is struggling to get the budget it needs, and remains a long shot. NASA officials have promised a diverse crew, including the first woman to set foot on the moon. “This time when we go, we’re going with all of America,” Jim Bridenstine, the current administrator, said last year, at a ceremony to rename the street outside of NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., “Hidden Figures Way,” in honor of the black women who helped send men to the moon.

Naia Butler-Craig, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering who lives in Atlanta, wants to be part of the Artemis generation. She told me she was in tears when she watched the SpaceX rocket lift off this weekend, overcome with pride. Yet she couldn’t truly relish the moment. How could she? “Sorry, I can’t just focus on the science,” she wrote in a blog post on the day of the launch, which was widely shared among black science communicators. “If we haven’t figured out our issue of racism and colonialism and all this madness here on Earth, we’re just going to continue to corrupt the places that we go,” Butler-Craig said. “I don’t want to repeat what we’ve done here.”

The SpaceX launch drew several million viewers. But as with many significant moments in America’s space program, it was a temporary spike. The launch soon gave way to more pressing headlines, and to experience America that day felt like witnessing two different universes. “I’m here in Cocoa Beach, Florida, looking at the juxtaposition of doing the most technologically advanced thing, sending people to space, but a man dies in police custody,” Leland Melvin, an African American NASA astronaut, said in an Instagram video last week from the Cape Canaveral area. Melvin, who flew aboard the space shuttle, had provided commentary on NASA’s official channel for the launch. “America, let’s get our crap together.”

After the launch, as cities across the country imposed curfews, I asked Bridenstine whether NASA’s time-worn message of unity should change. “There was a moment of time yesterday when these two astronauts launched when everybody paused, and we thought about what the future could be and how much brighter it could be than it is right now at this moment,” he said.

Then he added: “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation might have been a little high.”

Back in Chicago, Morancy chanted with fellow protesters, nervous that she could get hurt or arrested. She saw police officers shoving demonstrators, beating them with batons, and pepper-spraying them in the face. She watched as cops elbowed a girl in the face, and she tried to shield a man from arrest, holding on to his body as an officer pulled at his hair. Nearby, police cars burned. Morancy and her friends tried to leave the area around sunset, but the city had shut down public transportation. She finally made it home at about 9:30 p.m., her feet aching.

By then, the astronauts she had watched lift off hours earlier were already in orbit, changing out of their spacesuits and into pajamas as their capsule sped toward the space station, far away from Earth.