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A question about race in space

May 25, 2018

The Apollo missions to the Moon were very much a "white" science. Or so it's said. Where was the diversity?

Dr George Carruthers - Astrophysiker und Erfinder mit William Convway beim Naval Research Institute
Image: U.S. Naval Research Laboratory

It's funny how some online viral content can pass you by. We tend to think that absolutely everybody just has to have seen the latest meme, that tweet from Kanye West on slavery or Trump, or that video by some semi-famous comedian-come-musician on black history. After all, that's what viral is – an itch that spreads indiscriminately. But as with any biological virus, online virals can indeed pass you by if you're sufficiently inoculated.

So it was with a viral music video by Donald Glover – aka Childish Gambino – called "This is America." I spotted it purely by chance. My interest in Glover was piqued after watching an episode of his 2015 comedy-drama "Atlanta."

I typed Donald Glover, got "This is America," and a load of other results on what the video actually means. This is America stormed the net on its May 10 release — most probably not for the music, which is drab, but for the message. There are heaps of articles explaining the socio-historical-political-black/white-confederate-Jim-Crow-racist-violence-Mental-Health-African-dance references that an ignorant viewer such as me would have otherwise missed. If this is America today, black Americans have got a lot of problems.

And, yes, I missed them all. But the good thing is it got me thinking again about black scientists in America.

Of a fire in science

Black scientists have been on my mind since last autumn when I (finally) started reading Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer's "Of a Fire on the Moon."

The book is a collection of Mailer's Life magazine articles on the first Moon landing between 1969 and 1970. It is an incredible, visionary, philosophical look at human endeavor. But buried within its pages is a curious passage that strikes me as rather odd.

The extract involves Mailer at a dinner party in Houston, thrown by some art-collecting European friends of his. He gets into a conversation with a young African-American professor, who appears drunk to the writer.

"… there was a sense of somebody pickling himself through three days of booze … the heavy taking of the heaviest medicine …" writes Mailer.

Mailer puts some of this down to the professor seeming bored with his blond, white, Marilyn Monroe look-a-like of a partner. And there's yet more sexism to come.

Schriftsteller Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer was one of a new generation of American writers who developed a literary kind of journalismImage: picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com

"But there were other reasons for drinking … America had put two White men on the moon … a triumph of White men was being celebrated in the streets …"

Technically, at the time of this scene at the party, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, and their Command Module pilot, Michael Collins, were still on their way to the moon.

But that's a mere detail, because Mailer goes on.

He says the black professor believes "his people were possessed of a potential genius greater than whites," but that African Americans had a "distaste for numbers not because they were stupid or deprived, but because numbers were abstracted from the senses."

" … [A]nd the first heats of the triumph suggested that the fundamental notion of Black superiority might be incorrect … Yesterday, Whitey with his numbers had taken his first step to the stars, taken it ahead of Black men. How that had to burn in the ducts of this Black man's stomach, in the vats of his liver."

Read more: 'You could send Congress to space,' says Ted Cruz but, alas, Donald Trump declines

It was about at this point that I lost confidence in my ability to understand Mailer's motivation. To this day, I can't tell whether his observations reflect a racist tone of the time, including possibly his own, or that I've misunderstood the America in which it was written. So I've asked around. Yet almost as striking as the extract is the number of people whom I've contacted who have "declined to comment," as we journalists so politely like to put it.

Whitey talks

For the record, I've requested comment from celebrity astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson — twice — without joy. He's spoken to us before so it was worth a try. I've asked Professor Melina Abdullah, chair of pan-African studies at California State University and a Black Lives Matter organizer. She passed me on to Dr. Melvin Donaldson, but I never heard back. Mat Kaplan at Planetary Society declined to comment on the record. The Harry Ransom Center, which holds a Norman Mailer archive at the University of Texas at Austin, said it was unable to help. Same goes for the Science History Institute, based in Philadelphia, and the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution. No joy.

Mond Armstrong und Aldrin mit US-Flagge
There were "no black astronauts" at the time of the 1969 Moon landing. Since then diversity has improved, but not by much.Image: picture-alliance/Heritage Images/NASA/Oxford Science Archive

Although the Smithsonian did pass me onto Dr. Neil Maher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, so I may yet hear from him. There were one or two other female African-American scientists, but they had sadly passed (in one case at a very young age) or retired. I've tried to track down Dr. George Carruthers (pictured at the top), a black physicist and inventor who developed the first moon-based observatory for the Apollo 16 mission and who is now in his late 70s — I went through NASA communications, the NASA Alumni League, and the Naval Research Laboratory, where Carruthers was employed, but, again, no joy. Tom Spencer-Walters at California State University Northridge was recommended, and he may yet reply. 

So far, however, it seems only two space scientists are willing to comment. And, while I hope it's not relevant, both are white, or, not of color.

To be fair, and in view of the apparent sensitive nature of my enquiry, I'll try to maintain their anonymity. But here's what they said by email.

The first comment is from a known, high-ranking astrophysicist based in Arizona:

"Interesting excerpt. I've read Mailer but not this book. I think it is casually racist in some ways that were common even among well-educated literati in America at the time. Mailer could be a misogynist, a racist, and a drunken boor, but he also had some great insights into his time and culture — so a mixed bag. And he had a troubled relationship to alcohol, so the drunken reference might even be heroic in his eyes. He clearly presents blacks as apart from the grandest technological achievement of the age."

The reference to alcohol struck me as the point. In Australia, a country to which I have strong ties, members of the black indigenous population are still today put down as "drunks" — even in official reports — so as observations go on Mailer's part, it is loaded.

The second comment comes from a renowned east coast astronomer:

"I read the passage as sympathetic to the black man's frustrations trying to fit into the white man's space science. Indeed I have known people like him. I can't blame him for getting drunk anymore than I can take umbrage at the extraordinary lengths to which minorities need to go to gain recognition. Writing at that time, Mailer was very aware of his country's racist tendencies."

Amazon Gründer und CEO Jeff Bezos
The three people most known for their commercial space plans are white men, among them Amazon's Jeff BezozImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com

With each approach I provided the extract. It was important to me to make clear that my enquiry was not about mudslinging or besmirching Mailer's name and reputation. The point is to understand where we have come from to know where we are going. And in terms of space, America and its Apollo missions is where we're from.

But still no joy.

Perhaps I should have asked NASA's chief historian, Bill Barry. In fact, I'll do that now.

Who got the camera?

One of my biggest hopes was to speak to Johnie Scott, a retired professor whose last posting was as chair of the African studies department at California State University Northridge. He, too, may yet reply, but I won't hold my breath and perhaps there's no need to because he said it all 50 years ago. 

In 1966, Scott was interviewed for a BBC television documentary called "California 2000." It was all about Californian space research, and the computer and robotics industries that would shape our world. Here's part of what Scott told interviewer John Morgan:

"What do I look like, living in Watts, in the projects, sitting in a living room that really doesn't have too much of anything, looking at the launching of a missile to orbit a man around space, and … I'll hear a police siren and … I'll go outside and I'll see him going down the street and I'll look away because it's no big thing, this happens every day, and then I can look down a little further and see kids playing around trash cans, because that's all they have … The reality of being poor is in you. And a space race has to be the last thing on your mind. You're too concerned … and the word is 'hustling' … you're too concerned with just trying to make enough to live."

Read more: Our first InSight into the interior of Mars

There's no way for me to have written this piece without quoting Mailer a little out of context. If you want the full load to make up your own mind, you'll have to read the book, and read plenty more around it. Or try to speak to people in the know, but as I've found so few people are willing to speak on the record. Perhaps I should try talking to Donald Glover. That would make a viral article.

But for now the last words must go to Mailer and his unnamed black professor:

"You know," said the professor, "there are no black astronauts."

"Of course not."

"Any Jewish astronauts?"

"I doubt it."

The black man grunted. They would not need to mention Mexicans or Puerto Ricans …

"Look," said the black professor," do they have any awareness of how the money they spent could have been used?"

Mailer, who throughout feels a certain WASPishness (WASP = White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), concludes by writing that they, whoever "they" are, have a good argument, and that is that "if you stopped space tomorrow, only a token of the funds would go to poverty."

As with Glover's viral video, if I'd never read the extract I would probably have never wondered about racial diversity during the Apollo era of American space flight. It was an important time for the nation and the rest of the world. And it's shaped the world we have today. It's not as if there were no black scientists. So why was the time so white? And why do so few people want to talk about it?


*Please get in touch if you have any insight on diversity in space — whether it's historical or contemporary, in America or elsewhere. We'd like to hear from you.


Update June 15, 2018:

Since the original publication of this article on May 25, 2018, Professor of History, Dr. Neil Maher, got in touch. You can read our interview Of 'white guys on the Moon' and black America here.

NASA's chief historian, Dr. William P. Barry, also responded, but declined to comment on the record.



DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI, the mind, how science touches people, European perspectives
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