Space Is the Place

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still. (while Whitey’s on the moon)

—Gil Scott-Heron, “Whitey on the Moon” (1970)

It’s been exactly forty years since “Whitey” last set foot on the moon. It’s harder than ever to pay those bills. On the other hand, there are no more “Whiteys” on the moon. Happy now?

Scott-Heron’s still-funny poem exemplifies the attitude many African-Americans held toward the Apollo moon program. All those billions shot into space, while we’ve got black children on Earth who need school supplies, food, shelter, and so on. Meanwhile, if you were black and dared suggest (as my teenaged self did) that our space program was a good and perhaps necessary thing for all, you got an earful from those among your brothers and sisters who thought you were at best a dork. At worst, you were a fellow traveler with a power structure that seemed, in the afterglow of the 1969 moon landing, hell-bent on conquering Mars and at least every habitable moon of Jupiter.

Now, under an African-American president and an African-American director of NASA, the U.S. doesn’t even have its own manned launch vehicles for low-Earth orbit, much less interplanetary travel. Perhaps the most publicly prominent intellectual voice mourning this fact belongs to an African-American astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Space Chronicles—a rousing, amusing, and resolutely accessible scrapbook of science lessons, op-ed pieces, tweets, and Q&As—wrestles down most of the arguments against space travel while reigniting dormant impulses for pressing ahead.

The grab-bag nature of the selection finds Tyson repeating certain points to the edge of overemphasis. Though maybe it does need to be drummed into people’s heads that NASA’s estimated $100 million operating budget represents six years of the agency’s total funding and that said funding amounts to “one-half of one percent of [a U.S. citizen’s] tax bill.” Yet three-figure-million-dollar figures of any kind scare taxpayers and their representatives to the point of deep-sixing such forward-thinking programs as 1989’s Space Exploration Initiative, which, as Tyson argues, would have cost less than the amount JFK asked for and received from Congress to meet his by-the-end-of-the-1960s deadline for a moon landing.

For all his cheerleading, Tyson understands that to propose technological advancement for discovery’s sake is to hold a losing hand without war or power considerations backing it up. Meanwhile, Tyson makes his reasonable claims for the ancillary benefits of space travel in a political era skittish of science. As Alison Fairbrother reported here, the non-partisan Office of Technology Assessment was de-funded thanks in large part to the mid-1990s “revolution” fostered by Newt “I’m Going to Get Us Back on the Moon” Gingrich.

If reason won’t work, maybe something more mystical will. A scientist to the core, Tyson still presses hard on the notion that while “[t]echnology extends our muscle and brain power, science extends the power of our senses beyond our inborn limits.” I might, as a person of color likewise inclined toward the stars, make an even harder case to those among my long-ago antagonists on this issue: The more we press ourselves ahead in science and discovery beyond our immediate reach, the less frightened of or prejudiced against each other we are on level ground.

It was not then—and is not now—coincidental that both the space race and the civil rights move- ment achieved their respective peaks at the roughly the same time. That’s a connection I wish Tyson had made here. While I have my doubts that we’ll be leaving Earth orbit any time soon, I have none whatsoever that Tyson will eventually make that point as well.
Gene Seymour has written about jazz, film, and culture for such publications as The Nation, The New York Times, and American History.