Jun 2, 2020 - Science

What space means right now

SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket takes flight
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket. Photo: SpaceX

As SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket sped to space Saturday, protests over the death of George Floyd and other police-involved killings of black Americans were taking place on Earth, creating a sharp juxtaposition between two facets of life in the U.S.

Why it matters: While much of the rhetoric around accomplishments in space place it outside of Earthly concerns — like racism and systemic oppression — space has never been separate from politics on Earth. And it isn't today.

The big picture: NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine saw the crewed launch on Saturday as a moment of inspiration in a difficult time.

  • "I am hoping that people can see this as something that is bright and hopeful and that people know that tomorrow is a new day, and a better day, and we're always going to strive to do better," Bridenstine told Axios during a press conference Saturday.

Yes, but: Others don't necessarily see it that way.

  • "As long as we posit a world in which they [people of color] are supposed to turn off their humanity and draw some sort of colorblind inspiration from a launch that hasn't even acknowledged their pain and their presence, we're going to continue to not make strides in the way that we need to be," Lucianne Walkowicz, astronomer and co-founder of JustSpace Alliance, told Axios.

Between the lines: An American Institute of Physics task force found this year that the underrepresentation of African Americans in physics and astronomy is due to the systemic barriers African American students face within universities.

  • The first black American — astronaut Guion Bluford — didn't reach space until 1983, decades after Alan Shepard's first flight in 1961.
  • Not until the 2016 publication of the book "Hidden Figures" was there widespread acknowledgment of the contribution of three African American women to get us to the Moon in the first place.

Background: Apollo 11 is often pointed to as a moment where people around the U.S. came together during a time of great division to watch something amazing, but it didn't erase what was happening on the ground in 1969.

  • Civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy led a march on Kennedy Space Center ahead of the Apollo 11 launch, pointing out the high price tag of the program against the poverty many black Americans were facing.
  • Art also highlighted the stark difference between what NASA was doing to win the Space Race and how people — and specifically people of color — were living day to day.
  • Take these lines from Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon":
A rat done bit my sister Nell. (with Whitey on the moon) Her face and arm began to swell. (but Whitey's on the moon) Was all that money I made last year (for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain't no money here? (Hmm! Whitey's on the moon) Y'know I just about had my fill (of Whitey on the moon) I think I'll send these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon)

The bottom line: "The fact that we are still having these conversations some 50 years later, should show us how much we have failed to make progress," Walkowicz said.

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