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"White of the Moon": why Apollo 11 seemed so different from black American science

TThe date is July 15, 1969. When the Saturn V rocket towered over the descent, on its way to send the first men on the moon, two dozen black families of poor parts to the south, accompanied by mules and wagons symbolizing the civil rights movement, they headed for Florida's Kennedy Fence. From bird's eye view, they would look like dwarfs after a colossus.

They are led by Ralph Abernathy, the heir to the murdered Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He wore a sign that said absurdly: "$ 12 a day to feed an astronaut. We can feed the starving child for $ 8. "He said at a rally in the place:" We can continue from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and famine and war prevail on Earth, we as a civilized nation have failed. "

The mission of Apollo 11 was hailed as the greatest technological achievement of mankind and, after the turmoil of the 1960s, the redemptive moment of national and international unity. Speaking to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in what he described as "the most historic telephone conversation ever made," President Richard Nixon said: "For an invaluable moment in all of human history, all people on this Earth they really are one. "

But then it was the creation of myths and it will be again when America celebrates the 50th anniversary of this month with events, exhibitions and TV promotions. The Apollo program, motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, costing $ 25.4 billion, equivalent to $ 180 billion today; only the Vietnam war hit taxpayers harder. While NASA warns Congress, "There's no money, no Buck Rogers," polls show that the majority of Americans are opposed to the "londoggle."

The black press asked how the price can be justified when millions of African Americans are still in poverty. Testimonial to the US Senate on Race and Urban Poverty in 1966, the King noticed "after a few years we can be sure we will put a man on the moon and with a suitable telescope he will be able to see the slums of the Earth with their heavy workload , decay and turbulence ".

"Nonhuman Priority"

The protest march on the eve of the launch of Apollo 11 opened a new chapter in the poor people's campaign that built an improvised city at the National Mall in Washington a year earlier.

Tom Paine, the administrator of NASA, went out to meet the demonstrators. NASA's official story recalls: "Paine stood without a cloud under a cloudy sky, accompanied only by NASA's press service, while Abernathy approached his party, marching slowly and singing" We'll Overcome. "

Demonstrators protest at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on July 15, 1969, on the eve of the mission of Apollo 11.

Demonstrators protest at Cape Kennedy, Florida, on July 15, 1969, on the eve of the Apollo 11 mission. Photo: AP

"Several mules were leading as a symbol of poverty in rural areas. Then Abornatha made a short speech. He expressed regret at the state of the poor in the nation, saying that one-fifth of the nation does not have enough food, clothing, shelter and medical care. In the face of such suffering, he claims that the space flight is a non-human priority. He insists that his money be spent on feeding the hungry, clotting the naked, attracting the sick and accommodating the homeless.

"Payne replied that if we can solve the problems of poverty by not pressing the button to let the men on the Moon tomorrow, then we will not press this button. He added that NASA's technical advances are "childish play" compared to "extremely difficult human issues" that are related to SCLC. He offers the hope that NASA can really help to solve these problems, and then ask Abernata, the minister, to pray for the safety of astronauts. Abernathy replied with a feeling that he would certainly do this, and they finished this impromptu meeting, shaking hands around.

Among the protesters in Cape Kennedy (now known as Cape Canaveral) this day is JT. Johnson, a civil rights activist who had been a king in Memphis shortly before he died and became a close assistant to Abernathy. "They did not want you to be too close to where they were going, so we just picked out our place and decided to ride us and started talking and singing – the songs brought us through these difficult times – and we just did what – Johnson said in an interview with his home in an Atlanta suburb.

"At that time, the whole movement was about poverty and poor people, so that's all we talked about: how poor we are and how it happens on the moon and spends millions when we do not, and some people have no place to live or eat , but we still allow this to happen. That was the real protest: billions for the moon and money for the poor. "

Developer of White America

Johnson is now a 81-year-old grandfather. He is still politically active and hopes to tell more about the history of the civil rights movement. He wore a blue T-shirt in his red dining room and remembered that he had grown up during Jim Crow's segregation in Montessuma, Georgia.

JT Johnson at his home in Atlanta, Georgia.

JT Johnson at his home in Atlanta, Georgia. Photograph: Lynsey Weatherspoon / The Guardian

"There was a big fountain in the center of the city with a" colored "sign and a white sign when all the water came from the same place, he said. "As a child I could not understand because most of these things did not seem fair to me. So Lord knew I would be in the movement before I did it because I did not know this and some of the things I just did not like. It was not fair. "

As many as so many, King became his home. "When I met Dr. King, I thought it was the man I was waiting to see all my life and I dedicated myself to the civil rights movement."

In a protest in the 1960s, Johnson and others jumped into a swimming pool only in "St. Augustine "in Florida, where the hotel owner had to pour acid in the pool. After trying to integrate another swimming pool in Albany, Georgia, he was closed for six days and began a hunger strike. In this context, President John F. Kennedy's dream of putting a person on the Moon by the end of the decade seemed a luxury America could not afford.

"I think everything is related to the PR for the US and Russia," he said. "I think this country has never cared for the people here … Afro-Americans have never had their share; they spread it around everyone else. "

In fact, the Apollo program created the impression of a White American project. Since the footage of the age is replayed to mark a half-year, it is striking that all 12 people who have walked the moon are white men, as well as the vast majority of mission-control officers, engineers and scientists. The White musician and poet Scott Heron of the Moon summed up: "A rat has bitten my sister Nell / White on the moon / The face and her hands start to swell / and Whites on the moon."

Johnson said, "We did not hear an invitation; we did not get anything. So we thought it was a disgrace and disrespect for all of us … White people were privileged in this country and they did it for themselves. "

"The proud American"

Johnson did not stay in Cape Kennedy to witness the epic launch of the Saturn V rocket. But like millions enchanted around the world, he watched on television when Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface. He remembered, "I suppose it was exciting to see this happen, to be honest with you, but again the next day we went back to the same thing. How to feed our hungry? "

Others, however, felt differently. Abernathy stared at the launch. Professor and professor of mathematics at college, he did not oppose Apollo in itself, but rather "the distorted sense of national priorities of the nation."

Vice President Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson see Apollo 11 taking off from the stands located in the VIP Space for Observing the Kennedy Space Center.

Deputy Speaker Spiro Agnew and former President Lyndon Johnson are taking off Apollo 11 from the VIP space for viewing the Kennedy Space Center. Photo: NASA / Getty Images

His daughter, Donzali, who at that time was an 11-year-old girl, said on the phone: "He wanted to pay attention to the fact that we spend billions to send men to the moon, but we can not feed hungry children in America. In this way, my father also drew the attention of Congress members to the issue of hunger and poverty.

"In the end, this was a win-win situation all the time: my father said he felt like a really proud American and that just for a moment when this rocket shot into space, it was not about hunger, it was not about poverty, it was a question for the achievement of human beings. And this is a miracle in itself. "

Donasey, an actor who appeared alongside Megan, the Duchess of Sussex in the costume drama, ultimately shares his positive opinion of exploring the cosmos. "I do not believe it would be right or honest to say no … I think it would be counterproductive to the greater benefit of mankind.

"But you can not do this individually and look no further at those who are facing your face every day, who are starving and who are in poverty."

NASA's "Divisions"

Donasele reminded that Abernathy had a striking effect on NASA scientists, inspiring them to use technology to address urgent domestic needs such as air and water pollution. "Scientists have the ability to influence our world in a positive way, and they did, and I am so glad that the scientists listened," she said.

According to Neil Maher, an associate professor at New Jersey Technology Institute and Rutgers University, although NASA has never publicly stated that Abernathi's protest pressed her to tackle the poverty of African Americans, she began to take action to tackle these problems soon then.

Edwin E 'Buzz' Aldrin Jr congratulates the US flag on the moon's surface during Apollo 11's mission.

Edwin E 'Buzz' Aldrin Jr congratulates the US flag on the moon's surface during the mission of Apollo 11. Photo: NASA / AFP / Getty Images

"In 1972, the space agency set up a city center project office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, which retrofitted Apollo technologies for use instead of in American cities," said Maher, author of Apollo in the Age of Aquarius. email. "Such" separations "include water filtration systems, air pollution monitoring technologies and even energy-efficient heating and cooling systems from the Apollo space capsule instead of being used in low-income residential projects.

"Although these efforts had the best intention, many of these technologies unfortunately failed to dramatically improve the daily lives of African-Americans living in American cities."

After Armstrong's giant leap for mankind, the novelties quickly vanished, the public interest in landings of the moons diminished, and the doubts at the expense of all this only increased. Nixon cut Apollo's program and rejected the proposal to build a lunar base. Since then, NASA's workforce, including astronauts, has greatly diversified, and America has chosen its first black president. But the nation that put a man on the moon has not yet resolved racism, inequality or poverty.

For Johnson, who has been in the SCLC for 17 years and has created a political consultation, there is a sense of disappointment and wasteful opportunities. He avoids driving in the center of Atlanta, where people sleep rudely under bridges: "It hurts my heart." He will not celebrate the golden anniversary of this superb moment on Earth's closest neighbor.

"This country is still the same, people are still poor and are still hungry and this is not corrected," he said. "So here we are still playing the same game and no one protests there.

"What I want to see is the end of poverty, people are not hungry, people have a home, and they can enjoy life, and we put our money into science so we can get rid of Alzheimer's disease and all these different things that cripple us. We can live very happily in our own clothes and, as our grandmother said, our own mind until we die. So I want to see this Earth. "

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