Of ′white guys on the Moon′ and black America | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 01.06.2018
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Science

Of 'white guys on the Moon' and black America

The Moon landings were a success for American science – but not for African-Americans, as historian Neil Maher tells DW.

DW: The late 1960s must have been a manic time for the United States. On the one hand, there was this ambition to send people to the Moon, and on the other hand, there was this divided society, a little like today. So you had the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. How exactly was that possible at the same time?

Neil M. Maher: Well that's exactly what sparked me to write a book about the Apollo space program and its influence on the political and social movements of the 1960s. The project grew out of my thinking about the summer of 1969, which is the summer of Apollo 11, when a million people flocked down to Cape Canaveral to watch the Apollo 11 liftoff, and then three weeks later half a million young people hitchhike up to upstate New York to the Woodstock Music Festival to have a very different sort of celebration, not a celebration about American progress, but rather quite a critical celebration, through music, that discussed issues like the Vietnam War and civil rights.

USA | Woodstockfestival 1969 (imago/ZUMA Press)

The 1969 Woodstock Music Festival was a predominantly white "celebration" – like Apollo 11

So to me the fact that these two events occurred only three weeks apart says a great deal about America in 1969, and how there were certain segments of the country that felt very unified and very supportive of the American program, and that included Apollo. And there was a whole other section of the culture that felt differently. It was very critical of Apollo. And that plays out with almost every social and political movement of the 60s. They were all very critical of Apollo.

Your book, as you've mentioned it, is called "Apollo in the Age of Aquarius." And I just wanted to spend a moment focusing on that term of the Age of Aquarius, because it's a term that crops up in the Norman Mailer book, "Of a Fire on the Moon," his account of the 1969 Moon landing, and that's partly the reason why we're talking today. Mailer calls himself Aquarius throughout the book. So what is the significance of that? Why was it the Age of Aquarius, and why would Mailer call himself Aquarius?

The Age of Aquarius was a new age term – among a lot of the hippies. The hit musical "Hair" was on Broadway at the time, and one of its songs had the line, "This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius." It was a term for the counterculture during that period, and Mailer embraced that language and that name, I think, to juxtapose himself against many of the "NASA squares," as he would put it, the straight-laced administrators, engineers and scientists, who he was hanging out with and interviewing while writing that book. So he saw himself more as a hipster. He had written about hipsters earlier. "The White Negro" is one of his famous essays, in which he initiates the idea of a hipster, which foreshadowed the hippies. So he saw himself as one of those people, more than the squares of NASA.

Neil Maher (Privat)

Neil M. Maher is a professor of history and author "Apollo in the Age of Aquarius"

It's interesting you should say that because there's this one passage in the book that is kind of confusing, and I've wondered whether it's just that I don't understand the America of that time. So there's this moment when he's got a couple of days in between the launch of the astronauts and their landing. He goes to a party, where he meets a young African-American professor, who seems drunk to Mailer, possibly drunk because he's frustrated because of what Mailer calls the success of this "white science" of the Moon landing. And you've read that, so can you explain what he's saying there? I mean, is he sympathetic to what could be the frustrations of this young African-American professor? Or is there, dare I say it, a racist undertone?

Well, Mailer is a complicated person. He's been criticized, for instance, for his take on gender and for being a sexist. And I think what we see in that passage is also a little contradictory. On the one hand, he's completely stereotyping African-American culture. He's describing it as anti-technological, as very primitive, and he's idealizing that primitiveness. He's trying to praise it, I think, by arguing that African-Americans won't have to communicate through technology, like NASA and its astronauts, but will instead do it through telepathy. And in the same scene, he writes about timekeeping, and how the managers and scientists at NASA keep specific track of time, whereas African-Americans run by "colored people's time," which is less precise. [Ed.: The term "colored people's time, or C.P.T., is also derogatory]. So he's praising African-American culture but in a very backhanded way – in a very stereotypical way that is racist. But I think that he was quite sympathetic to the claims that he's making in that passage with respect to how all this money has been spent on getting these white men to the Moon, and there's been very little spent on helping African-Americans in the American ghetto. So Mailer is very sympathetic to that. He is using the African-American professor to get this point across to his readers.

And the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 70s had the exact same critique of Apollo. Civil rights leaders, like Ralph Abernathy, who was Martin Luther King's right hand man, organized many protests against this misallocation of funds – many protests against NASA and against the Apollo program.

That's incredible. So to bring it back to the "squares of NASA," to what extent were they aware of this problem? Not necessarily what Mailer was writing, but the issue of racial diversity in the science community of the time. I know there were African-Americans involved in the Apollo missions, like George Carruthers, so were they aware of it as an issue, as a problem?

Yes. Very much so. There are two issues here. One is this issue of discrimination within NASA itself, and, at first, the agency not hiring many African-Americans. Yet by the mid-1960s, NASA responds and tries to hire more minorities through its Equal Employment Opportunity program, which they created within NASA to try to correct that problem.

USA Memphis Martin Luther King 1968 (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Thornell)

The movement: The Rev. Ralph Abernathy (right) – "right hand man" – to Martin Luther King (coincidentally) to his left

But the bigger issue, I think, is that they were aware that African-American culture in general was indifferent towards the space race. African-Americans didn't watch the launches. You had civil rights leaders who were actively protesting during the "ticker tape parades" for returning astronauts – they disrupted parades in Manhattan, for instance, to try to draw attention to poor housing conditions.

Ralph Abernathy organized a Poor People's Campaign during the launch of Apollo 11, where he marched to Cape Canaveral with four mules, two wagons and 25 poor African-American families, and he demanded a meeting with Thomas Paine, who was the head of NASA at the time. And they met very dramatically in this field just outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center, and Abernathy said to Paine, I want you to to turn your science and technology back around and help poor people, African-Americans in the ghetto.

But that is a very real concern, isn't it? I stumbled across a documentary from 1966 with Johnie Scott, who became a professor at California State University, Northridge, and he was saying, 'I'm here in Watts, and it may seem great that I can watch a rocket launch on my TV, but when I go outside because I hear a police siren, I can see kids playing with trash cans, and that's the reality – I'm more concerned with hustling than I am with the Moon right now, and that is a real concern.'

Mondlandung 1969 Neil Armstrong (dapd)

"I can't pay no doctor's bills but whitey's on the Moon," as poet Gil Scott-Heron put it in 1970

Absolutely. And that contradiction was lived on the streets of America's cities. African-Americans consciously didn't watch the Moon landings, didn't watch the Moon walks, because of their reality. Songs like "Whitey on the Moon" is a great example. In it, the poet and musician, Gil Scott-Heron, ridicules all the money being spent on going to the Moon when, in the song, his sister is in the ghetto being bitten by rats in their apartment. It was a very strong and palpable reality on the street that African-Americans felt. They saw it as an injustice that all this money was being spent to get two white guys on the Moon when their own daily life was extremely difficult.

And so if we fast-forward now to the America of today, and space science in America today, how does it compare? Looking in from the outside we see a divided nation, with a lot of the same issues coming up again. I refer to the Donald Glover, or Childish Gambino, viral hit, "This is America." It doesn't look like a lot has changed.

Well, the main thing that's changed is this embrace of neoliberalism – I think that is very different – and that might not totally sync up with the racial issue that you're getting at. But in the 60s, NASA and the Apollo program was very much a civilian agency, on purpose. And because of that the American public had a say in what NASA did. So in the late 60s when everyone was very excited about getting to the Moon and beating the Russians, NASA didn't need to listen to many of those political movements that were critical.

But in the 70s, as popularity for the Apollo mission waned, and support for space exploration waned in general, NASA had to figure out ways to engage these political movements, and it did so by redirecting much of its technology. For instance, It created an Urban Systems Project Office that retooled satellites and other technology to help those living in America's inner cities. Because of protests by anti-war activists, NASA also cancelled some of its research on space technology that had been aiding the US military in Vietnam.

So what I'm getting at here is that in this neoliberal turn, and as space exploration goes private, we, as the public, lose out on any say in that. In other words, instead of getting up on our soapbox and saying we want NASA to do this and not that, in this neoliberal moment we can no longer do that. Whereas in the 60s, civil rights activists could complain, and NASA would then hire more African-Americans to try to appease the civil rights leaders. Today, Elon Musk doesn't need to do that. His is a private company.

Well that's right. There are three heads in space right now – Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and they are all white men.

Right, and they don't have to listen to the public anymore. So the neoliberal turn is both good, because it lowers costs – it's much more cost efficient now, with the rockets they're launching, and that means we should have more room for science on those missions – but perhaps they don't want to put science on the missions. Perhaps they want to put red Tesla cars in space, as Musk did, or wealthy tourists. Maybe they don't want to hire African-Americans. Maybe they do. You don't know. But we're not going to have a say in that because it's no longer a public organization, no longer a public agency or endeavor.

Neil M. Maher is the author of "Apollo in the Age of Aquarius." He is also  a Professor of History at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University–Newark. "Apollo in the Age of Aquarius" is published by Harvard University Press (2017).

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