It’s been a half century since Gil Scott-Heron recorded the spoken-word poem Whitey on the Moon for his 1970 debut album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox: “I can’t pay no doctor bill/ (but Whitey’s on the moon)/ Ten years from now I’ll be paying still/ (while Whitey’s on the moon).”
The year before, the same administration that successfully led Apollo to the moon assassinated Black Panther deputy chairman Fred Hampton and party member Mark Clark. Police had raided the Stonewall Inn and the US supreme court had only just ordered the desegregation of public schools in the south. One in 10 families lived in poverty, Black people at a rate three times that of white people. The US space program was a sprawling and expensive endeavor, perhaps too complicated a subject to understand in one sitting, but its cost was apparent. An “inner city” high school teacher quoted in a 1969 article from the Nation said: “Every time one of those things blasts off I can’t think of anything except all that money we need here on earth.’’ While the fantasy of “out there” was trotted around the world as the next step in human advancement, people on the ground were suffering.
In 2017, the Trump administration launched the Artemis space program, with the goal of putting the first woman (and next man) on the moon by 2024, an endeavor costing in excess of $30bn. In May of 2019, Jim Bridenstine, former administrator of Nasa, said of the program, “I have a daughter who is 11 years old, and I want her to be able to see herself in the same role as the next women who go to the moon see themselves in today.” The moon has been a lodestar of optimism and exploration for decades. During the Apollo 11 pre-flight news conference, Neil Armstrong said, “I think we’re going to the moon because it’s in the nature of the human being to face challenges.”
But that quintessential human being is a myth, those challenges unmet. There is a distinction to be made between the people of earth and the people from earth. In that gap, the most expendable cease to exist.
Last month, aerospace researchers at the University of Arizona proposed a plan for a “lunar ark”, capable of storing 6.7m cryogenically frozen plant, animal, and fungi species, an insurance policy against the volatility of life on Earth that would run a rough estimate of hundreds of billions of dollars.
When the vastness of space is cited as a means of escape from disaster, it’s exceedingly difficult not to believe nihilism acts as the prime motivator. Rather than sparking inspiration, it speaks of blatant fatalism about what is worth saving, a preference for the lofty and unpopulated that rewards cognitive dissonance with delusions of innovation and heroism. The concept of space as a clean slate comes with the caveat that only a select few are worthy of salvation, that escape will lead to freedom, that whoever builds the future will have learned from the mistakes of the people they left behind, that all of this will justify the costs needed. How condescending.
And a few days after the “lunar ark” proposal, the Society of Jesus, better-known as the Jesuits, announced a $100m initiative of racial reconciliation to atone for the Catholic order’s slave-owning history. Days after, eight people, six of them Asian women, were murdered in a spa in Atlanta.
The gap between science fiction and reality has often been seen as a marker of human progress, technology as the slippery Promethean knowledge through which every problem might eventually be solved. Folded into this is the idea that these advancements reflect our collective ambitions – records broken, processes streamlined, representation expanded – all with a hope (a word that often functions like an incantation) for the best versions of ourselves to prevail. That these advancements are usually state-funded with some sort of military involvement, or privately hoarded to maintain exclusivity, is rarely challenged. Government, as an apparatus that reflects and inflicts the biases and prejudices of its members onto the public, escapes interrogation. And only when burdensome subjects like bigotry and inequality are reframed as viruses, sicknesses, diseases to be spread, do they receive any rigorous attention. This is par for the course, as science in the mainstream tends to be separated from on-the-ground events and from history. The truth is that none of these things occur in a vacuum.
In 2016, A Tribe Called Quest released their final album, We Got It From Here…Thank You 4 Your Service. On the opening track The Space Program, the trio continue the same conversation Gil Scott-Heron contributed to in 1970. “Put it on TV, put it in movies, put it in our face/ These notions and ideas and citizens live in space/ I chuckle just like all of y’all, absurdity, after all/ Takes money to get it running and money for trees to fall.”