The inspiration that human spaceflight brings cannot erase the anger and pain felt by communities around the United States who are reeling from violence and racial injustice.
This weekend, Americans celebrated the launch of SpaceX’s Demo-2 mission, a historic crewed mission that returned astronaut flights from U.S. soil for the first time since 2011. The mission launched NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station on a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule.
But at that same moment, people across the country were protesting the death of George Floyd, who was killed Monday (May 25) when the now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck while other officers looked on. Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on Friday (May 29), but the incident, captured on video and stemming from a history of police brutality against people of color, has sparked outrage across the nation.
The dichotomy between spaceflight feats and racial injustice was front and center as NASA was asked multiple times about celebrating the launch amid protests following the launch and docking with the International Space Station.
While some might be able to take a break from the news and focus on the historic launch, others can’t ignore the injustices suffered by marginalized communities.
“Today demands we take pride not only in reaching the sky, but also sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion and justice for all, now! #WeStandWithYou #icantbreathe,” retired NASA astronaut Mae Jemison, who was the first black woman to travel to space, wrote on Twitter.
Today demands we take pride not only in reaching the sky, but also sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion and justice for all, now! #WeStandWithYou #icantbreatheMay 30, 2020
Many have drawn the comparison between this SpaceX launch and NASA’s Apollo spaceflights, which took place against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement and overall unrest in the country.
“We have had moments in time in American history where we’ve had challenges as a nation,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during the post-launch conference on May 30. “We think back to the 1960s, we think about the Vietnam War and the protests we think about in the 1960s, the civil rights abuses and the civil rights protests.”
The year 1968, in which NASA’s Apollo 8 sent the first humans around the moon at Christmas amid civil rights protests and the Vietnam War on Earth, has specifically been referenced more than once. Amid the millions of telegrams the Apollo 8 crew received after that flight was one to commander Frank Borman that said simply: “Thank you Apollo 8. You saved 1968.”
“Times are tough right now. We’ve got the coronavirus pandemic, we have other challenges in the country,” Bridenstine added. “But I hope this moment in time is an opportunity for everybody to reflect on humanity and what we can do when we work together, when we strive and when we achieve.”
Spaceflight feats aren’t a cure
However, just as the Apollo missions didn’t erase the strife of marginalized groups in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, the human spaceflight missions of today don’t efface these issues either.
Although the SpaceX flight was historic, so too are the current protests against racism and police brutality in the U.S., which have spread worldwide. Even astronauts and space experts have had a difficult time reflecting on the importance of the mission at this moment.
For example, retired NASA astronaut Leland Melvin, a black leader in space who provided live commentary on NASA TV during the launch, spoke out in a candid Instagram video on May 27 following the initial delay of the launch. He began by stating that the launch almost happened but the weather got in the way. “Also recently,” he added, “George Floyd was pinned down by knee in his neck to the ground while handcuffed,” the incident that caused his death.
“He was screaming he couldn’t breathe he was calling for his mother. That’s when I started crying because I think about my mom, I think about myself, I could’ve been him,” Melvin said in the video. “This has got to stop. There’s a pandemic now against black men in this country and I truly feel that it’s hatred, it’s evil, it’s racism, it’s all these things.”
“I am heartbroken,” he added. “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 … America, let’s get our crap together, this is unsatisfactory. We gotta stop this … Godspeed everyone, love you, peace and love and guys, be safe out there. This is totally unsatisfactory and it’s appalling. Peace.”
The launch 🚀 today was a marvel of teamwork and a powerful demonstration of technical prowess. But I find no joy in it with so many in pain from racial injustice and with the images of our cities in chaos. I thought 1968 was bad.May 31, 2020
Poppy Northcutt, the first woman to work in an operational support role in NASA’s Mission Control, and who later went on to become an attorney, added her voice to the mix. She wrote on Twitter: “The launch today was a marvel of teamwork and a powerful demonstration of technical prowess. But I find no joy in it with so many in pain from racial injustice and with the images of our cities in chaos. I thought 1968 was bad.”
Not everyone can enjoy the moment
In addition to Bridenstine, President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence also spoke about the ongoing protests against police violence in their speeches following the launch. However, these officials hearkened back to the concept that people who are hurting could simply look to and embrace the inspiration generated by this human spaceflight achievement.
“As our nation reels from the tragic death of George Floyd and violent protests of the past few days, I believe with all my heart, that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s,” Pence said, additionally using the phrase “every life matters,” echoing rhetoric that has been used in opposition of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We have had moments in time in American history where we’ve had challenges as a nation,” Bridenstine added. “But I think what is great about NASA is that we bring people together.”
While these words might have the feel-good patriotism expected of government officials following a historic event, not everyone can feel the “unity of purpose,” as Pence put it.
So, while in many decades, as we look back at Apollo now, it might be easier to find inspiration in this mission, right now, it makes perfect sense that not everybody would have the privilege of fully enjoying the moment.