Fifty years ago, on July 16, 1969, Apollo 11’s Saturn V rocket took off from its launch site at Cape Kennedy (now Cape Canaveral), Florida. On a field near the launch site, Ralph Abernathy, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led a protest march of 25 black families and members of SCLC’s Poor People’s Campaign, along with four mules to represent the poverty facing black families.
In his speech, Abernathy called on NASA to use their skills and technologies to address “the problems we face in society,” and clarified that they were not protesting the space program but the “distorted sense of national priorities.”
Hundreds of thousands watched the historic launch in Florida, and an estimated 650 million people were glued to their TV screens on July 20, when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, according to NASA.
Meanwhile, many black families deliberately opted out of watching the Apollo 11 mission entirely. Neil Maher, a professor of history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Rutgers University, and author of the book “Apollo in the Age of Aquarius,” argued that this was done in protest as well.
“They didn’t go out in the streets and protest, but instead, during the Apollo launch they sat home and watched a baseball game. They consciously did this. This was a conscious act. I want to argue that both of those acts are political and both of those acts are very very important,” said Maher.
Maher said that at the time, critics and supporters of the space program were divided by their visions for the U.S.’ future.
Critics saw the opportunity to turn the resources and technology of the space program back toward the immediate social issues on Earth. NASA administrators and supporters, who, Maher said, tended to be more conservative and from middle America, saw the Apollo missions as “a real cold war, feather-in-our-cap that ‘we beat the Russians’ ” and as the key to a Utopian future.
As this year’s 50th-anniversary celebrations honor the space program’s achievements, a look back at the art, music and social movements of the ’60s and ’70s captures the more complicated reality of an age awed by the possibilities of space travel while grounded in the inequalities and struggles of the time.
A space-age dream of racial harmony
University of Washington professor of history of science and technology Bruce Hevly pointed to shows like the original “Star Trek” series — with its multiracial crew and famous interracial kiss between Captain Kirk and Lt. Uhura — as an example of the Utopian hopes that supporters had linked to the space program.
“Star Trek” premiered in 1966 when NASA was surveying landing areas for the Apollo mission. NASA and “Star Trek” would interact with each other in different ways over the next decade — “Star Trek: Voyager” used Hubble Space Telescope images, actress Nichelle Nichols recruited for NASA, and over the years several astronauts cited “Star Trek” as an inspiration — but in 1966, the TV show quickly launched beyond the realities of the space program into an imagined future of light-speed travel and alien civilizations.
Walidah Imarisha, a Portland-based writer, educator and co-editor of “Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements,” noted that even in the Utopian space-age vision put forth by “Star Trek,” the social inequities of the real world bled through.
Imarisha noted a “Star Trek” episode called “The Savage Curtain,” in which a revived Abraham Lincoln refers to Lt. Uhura, the only black character on the show, as “a charming negress,” to which Uhura (played by Nichols) responds that she is not offended because humanity has moved beyond a place where words can hurt us.
“I feel like that is the embodiment of that white liberalism — the notion that we have moved beyond, magically, all of these issues of the past,” Imarisha said.
For Imarisha, “Star Trek” was “the place where [she] learned to be a nerd,” and the original “Star Trek” series was complex, reflecting the show’s complicated connection to black viewers in the ’60s and ’70s . While many did not buy into its portrayals of a magically racism-free future, many saw possibility in the character of Lt. Uhura.
In 1967, after the first season of “Star Trek,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously persuaded Nichols not to leave the show, insisting that her presence was an important representation for black youth.
Later, Nichols used her celebrity, through the “Women in Motion” campaign and NASA recruitment films, to attract a more diverse pool of candidates to the space program.
Her efforts were instrumental in recruiting both the first female astronaut, Sally Ride, and the first black astronaut, Guion Bluford. Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman astronaut to go into space in 1992, also cited Nichols as an inspiration.
For many of those critical of the space race, however, poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 spoken-word poem “Whitey on the Moon” best captured their feelings about it.
The poem, which was recorded on Scott-Heron’s debut album “Small Talk at 125th and Lenox,” directly contrasted the moon landing against poverty in black communities. An excerpt:
“A rat done bit my sister Nell
With whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And whitey’s on the moon
I can’t pay no doctor bills
But whitey’s on the moon
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still
While whitey’s on the moon”
According to UW professor Hevly, “Whitey on the Moon” was a rallying cry.
“That’s the kind of anthem for this general sense that we can put a man on the moon, but we can’t [fill in the blank]. We can put a man on the moon, but we can’t feed people, we can’t resolve the war in Vietnam, we can’t educate the population,” said Hevly.
Black Panthers as science-fiction creators
But movement organizers weren’t waiting around. While NASA was putting a man on the moon, movements like the Black Panther Party created programs that fit into their own vision for the future.
“[Sociologist] Alondra Nelson talks a lot about the Black Panther Party as science-fiction creators,” said Imarisha. “And I think that framing is really important because the Black Panther Party was doing what NASA and the federal government said they were doing with the moon landing, which was imagining these new futures going beyond the boundaries of what we know and then building them into existence.”
Elmer Dixon, a co-founder of the Black Panther Party’s Seattle chapter, agreed, pointing to the organization’s breakfast program for children, which began in Oakland, California, in 1969 and predated the expansion of the national School Breakfast Program to all public schools, and to the party’s free health clinics as a precursor of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
For Dixon, the space race was a childhood fascination. However, by 1968, when he was 17 and had co-founded the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party, he had come to think of the space race as a distraction from the issues affecting his own community.
“After sitting in at Franklin [High School], getting arrested, seeing King murdered, learning that Bobby Hutton had been murdered, and then becoming a Panther, my whole perspective shifted,” Dixon said. “Hell yes, I was opposed to wasting money on sending astronauts to fly up to the moon and plant a flag.”
Finding a place in space
While some black activists and artists decried the space race, others held up a different vision: Space as refuge.
Musical artists like Sun Ra, the eclectic jazz musician, composer and bandleader who infused his work with futuristic and space themes.
In his 1974 short film “Space is the Place,” Sun Ra, portraying a character also named Sun Ra, traveled to Earth on a spaceship to tell the people of Earth about the black Utopia that he hails from.
In the film, when one of the young people asks Ra if there are any “whiteys” in space, he answers that white people take frequent trips to the moon.
“I notice none of you have been invited,” he says, referencing that while several black scientists and mathematicians were an important part of making the moon landing possible, the public face of the Apollo missions in the ’60s was dominated by white men.
In “Space is the Place,” Ra is quite literally extending the invitation to black people to join him in space.
Other invitations for black people to find a place for themselves in space weren’t as literal as Ra’s. In 1976, George Clinton’s influential group Parliament Funkadelic, for example, commissioned the creation of an elaborate mothership that would “land” amidst an explosion of lights and fireworks during their concerts. A replica of the mothership now stands on the top floor of the National Museum of African American History & Culture in D.C., representing the future for black people in this country.
The spacey influences of musicians and bands like Sun Ra and Parliament Funkadelic show up in the music of today’s black artists such as Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar and The Coup.
Seattle-based artist and musician Julian Priester (also known as Pepo Mtoto), recalled being fascinated and influenced by Sun Ra and his philosophy after he played in Ra’s band in the 1950s.
“It was way above my understanding,” said Priester, who was 17 at the time, but he credits Ra with the spontaneity that he incorporated into his music for the rest of his career.
“As a source of inspiration, [science and science fiction] is a good thing. It can lead us to new things, new methods,” said Priester.
Seattle hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros cites Parliament Funkadelic as one of the influences on his work and many others.
In 2012, Teodros, along with artists Meklit Hadero and Burntface, released an album that told the story of three space fugitives landing on Earth in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in the stolen spacecraft CopperWire. Hugo & Nebula Award-winning author Nnedi Okorafor wrote the liner notes for the album.
The album incorporated into the music sonified light curves, or what stars “sound” like when the vibrations of a star are amplified to a frequency that the human ear can hear.
With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing approaching, Teodros said he feels that in some ways the country has moved backward. But, like Imarisha, he believes that change comes from the kind of imagining that space travel and science fiction inspire.
“When we’re creating narratives about space and when we’re creating narratives about the future, we’re essentially talking about what’s possible,” said Teodros.
“Science fiction at its best can inform somebody’s imagination, and when you can inform somebody else’s imagination and just show that this is possible, so much can be done. That’s everything. Showing somebody that something is possible will help them create it.”