Why can’t a rocket launch unite us now?

This story was originally released on June 3, following a successful launch of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. We will post it again, along with a video that expands our coverage and features black voices within the aerospace community. They explain what it’s like to be in the space world at a time when the nation is focused on injustice and systemic racism.

At 9:30 a.m. ET on Tuesday, three American astronauts symbolically called the Nasdaq’s opening bell from space, a celebration of SpaceX’s historic launch that sent astronauts into orbit three days earlier. The brief ceremony was performed live on the Nasdaq giant screen in Times Square, with several NASA staff members applauding when an astronaut rang a bell on the International Space Station.

The video flashed on the same streets where, in the days and nights before, thousands of protesters had gathered nearby to protest systemic racism and police brutality against black Americans.

This type of cognitive dissonance has permeated SpaceX’s first passenger flight, the first time NASA astronauts have launched from the US in nearly a decade. NASA has been waiting for this moment since the last space shuttle landed in 2011, and now the agency wants to celebrate it. He also wants the United States and the world to celebrate. But if the space community expects the world to care about the things we do in space, there must be an acknowledgment of how broken things are on the ground and the injustices that still exist in the United States.

That could mean passing up the opportunity to ring the bell on Wall Street while the economy is in tatters. It could mean a compassionate statement from the crew addressing the people on Earth below, rather than answering memorial questions from dignitaries and the press.

There are mysterious echoes between this SpaceX and Apollo 8 release, as others have pointed out. That mission, the first to reach the neighborhood of the Moon, was launched in 1968, a year that reflects 2020 in its apocalyptic desolation. The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. had sparked protests across the country. Space enthusiasts like to look back on that mission with pink glasses, as something that served as a bright beacon of hope during a difficult time for the country.

But as others have pointed out, Apollo 8 did not fix the turmoil of the time. Just look at where we stand today. Similarly, the launch of SpaceX did not unite the country or the world, although NASA certainly tried to make that claim. “This was an incredible moment of unity for the nation,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a call with the astronauts after the launch. “It was an incredible time for everyone to look amid the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges. We can have very, very special moments where we can all look to the future and say that things will be brighter tomorrow than they are today. ”

A small group of protesters, led by Hosea Williams and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, organize a protest in Cape Kennedy, Florida, on July 15, 1969, on the eve of the Apollo 11 lunar mission. They stand in front of a model of lunar landing.

If only it were that simple. The problem that NASA and the space community often don’t understand is that space flight is not yet inclusive. These releases can be fun and emotional to watch, but they don’t always feel like they’re for everyone. Space remains an exclusive and expensive domain, and the people in charge of this industry remain predominantly male and white. The idea that a launch could unite the public at a time when widespread racism and injustice are at the forefront of people’s minds is naive at best.

In fairness to NASA, Bridenstine acknowledged that a major space launch could not “fix” the world. “Look, I think what NASA does is amazing. It is impressive and brings people together, ”she said. “If the expectation was that things on the ground were going to change because we launched a rocket, I think maybe the expectation could have been a little high.” He then proceeded to talk about how many people tuned in to NASA and SpaceX launch coverage over the weekend.

Those numbers are simply not important at this time. Yes, the launch must have been a brilliant little moment for people who focused their attention on a rocket that rose into space for a brief moment this weekend. But if the space community really wants to have a bonding effect on the world, it must be deeply rooted in the events of Earth. And the space world seems to exist in a bubble where these things simply have no effect.


On May 30, 2020, President Donald Trump, right, Vice President Mike Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence watch the launch of NASA’s SpaceX Demo-2 mission.
Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds protest the death of George Floyd in Washington

A protester raises his hands in front of a police barricade during a protest for the death of George Floyd in Washington, the United States, on May 30, 2020.
Photo by Yasin Ozturk / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

While NASA acknowledged the problems that occurred on the surface during the launch of SpaceX, the statements did not deviate much from promoting the idea that this launch was a beacon of hope for the world during a difficult time. Meanwhile, the industry has mostly taken refuge in its celebration bubble. While many other major industries have issued a series of statements addressing the protests, the giants of the space flight industry remained silent.

Instead, compassionate demands for change have been left to people in the world of space flight, including former astronauts.

“It is not this mission that will unite us, but the individuals who follow it who step forward to close their arms with people we do not know but who we must learn to trust,” said former astronaut and former NASA administrator Charles Bolden on Twitter.

“Today demands that we pride ourselves not only on reaching heaven, but also on sustained heights of decency, truth, compassion, and justice for all, now!” Former astronaut Mae Jemison said on Twitter.

“America let’s get our trash together,” former astronaut Leland Melvin said during a Facebook video. “This is not satisfactory. We have to stop this. And they will be the good people who do nothing now that they begin to do something to eradicate this hatred, evil and racism. “

Even if the space industry came out with a unified statement, from the outside, it seems like it’s more or less commercial as usual in the space world. NASA and space companies continue to move forward with many of the same things they had planned, such as delivering contracts for major programs, making major announcements, and launching vehicles. But times are anything but business as always. If the space community wants to bring people together, then it must make people feel like they are part of space, and that means being aware of where people’s lives are on the ground. It means committing to correct the mistakes in our society and at the same time build vehicles to break the bonds of gravity.

Only then will people feel that they can come together to wonder on our journey to the stars.