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Gaming the Moon Race
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[[Begin Mission]]The traditional Moon Landing narrative is one of whiteness, and as a result, Black America has been made invisible from the story of the landing. This interactive experience juxtaposes the Apollo 11 Moon Landing with the civil rights struggles happening in the United States at the same time.
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The week before the landing took place, Reverend Ralph Abernathy led a two-day demonstration at Cape Canaveral of around 500 people. Abernathy is pictured above holding a sign that illustrates a central civil rights issue with the race to the moon. The demonstration was meant to highlight the significant need for government funding to address racialized poverty within American society, rather than a moon landing. Despite this effort, the main narrative of the Moon Landing remains one of progress and of America's triumph over the Soviet Union. Let's change this up!
[[Challenge Kennedy]]'s 'We Choose to Go to the Moon' speech (1962)
[[Challenge Armstrong]]'s 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' broadcast (1969)In the 1960 Presidential Election, Kennedy promised Americans that the United States would be the first country to land on the moon. He used this 1962 speech to rally public support for this costly ambition.
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In 1962, there was increased discussion and debate regarding the country's emergent 'War on Poverty,' which was something that disproportionately impacted Black Americans. Who exactly was Kennedy referring to then when he said "we" in his speech?
Despite the growing need to spend tax dollars to bring US citizens out of poverty, how much do you think the 'Moon Race' Kennedy initiated with this speech cost?
The Apollo 11 mission was Neil Armstrong's second mission into space. NASA chose him to be the first man to walk on the moon because he was a skilled, yet mild-mannered civilian, while Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, was known to be a 'fiery' military man.
Armstrong never returned to space following the Apollo 11 mission, and gradually withdrew from the public eye because he was uncomfortable with the fame the mission brought him. His famous broadcast, 'One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind' was actually misspoken! He had intended to say 'One small step for A man' instead, but the misspoken line was immediately embraced as signalling an advancement in humanity, so there as no going back.
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Only 12 people have ever walked on the moon, and all of them worked for NASA, which was seen as confirmation that the United States won the 'Moon Race' against the Soviet Union. The fact that all 12 of these astronauts were men puts Armstrong's "One small step for man" broadcast into new context.
While none of the 12 were women, how many of these astronauts were Black?
[[Three]]Good guess, but a bit off the mark!
Go back to [[Challenge Kennedy]] and try againAck, that's a bit low for what it actually cost!
Go back to [[Challenge Kennedy]] and try again.Correct!
This is the equivalent of $152 billion today, and many civil rights activists believed that their tax dollars would have been better spent addressing the longstanding oppression and inequalities the Black population experienced every day in America.
But the Moon Race was infectious, and diverted public and government focus on the civil rights campaigns sweeping the nation at the same time. Instead of focusing on racialized injustices, the American people celebrated anyone--and any thing--attached to the nation's pursuit of the moon. This included the primates sent into space to test the viability of the mission. Miss Baker, seen at a press conference in the image below, was the first primate to survive a mission into outer space and back.
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Seeing the praise the primates launched into space received in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Malcolm X wrote in 1964 that, “One hundred years have passed since the Civil War, and these chimpanzees get more recognition, respect & freedom in American than our people do.”
We can see this in how Black women working for NASA during the Moon Race had been made invisible from the narrative.
[[What?! Tell me more!]]
Woah, that's a bit much, even for landing on the moon!
Go back to [[Challenge Kennedy]] and guess again.Correct!
NASA has never sent a Black astronaut to the moon, and only sent its first Black astronaut to space in 1983, when Guion Bluford was part of the STS-8 Challenger crew. Bluford was one of the 35 people recruited by NASA in 1978, of whom six were women, three were Black, and one was Asian American.
In fact, the Soviet Union, America's greatest competitor in the Moon Race, sent the first person of African descent to space, Cuban Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, in 1978.
This again puts Armstrong's 'one small step for man' into context, and illustrates the entrenched discrimination against racialized and gendered minorities with American society and the space program. It also helps us understand the mixed reaction to the Moon Landing in American society.
While much of white America watched the landing live on TV, or gathered together in public squares to collectively experience the moment, the Harlem Cultural Festival was taking place in this historic Black ghetto of New York City.
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Known as the 'Black Woodstock' and featuring popular Black performers like Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone, when the news of the successful moon landing was announced, the entire crowd booed!
[[Whitey on the Moon]]
Nope! Good guess, but go back to [[Challenge Armstrong]] to try again.Sorry, that's incorrect!
Go back to [[Challenge Armstrong]] to try again.Argh, good guess, but incorrect!
Go back to [[Challenge Armstrong]] to try again.Women were essential to the Moon Race, working in the same roles as their male colleagues (engineers), but referred to as “computresses” because they were not seen as having the same capabilities as their male counterparts. However, Black women were essential to the Moon Race, despite the double oppression they faced by the fact of their sex and their race, especially as most NASA campuses were in the Jim Crow south.
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Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson worked for NACA/NASA from the 1950s onwards and were essential to the early achievements of the Space Race, including John Glenn’s orbit in 1962. Christine Darden became the first woman NASA engineer in 1972.
Now that you know a bit more about the early Moon Race, let's jump forward in time to [[Challenge Armstrong]] The different reactions to the Moon Landing illustrate the sharp racialized disparities in American society. In 1969, the poverty rate for Black Americans was 31.1%, compared to 9.5% for white Americans. That number jumped up to 62% for the rural Black community. For many of these people, spending billions of tax dollars on the Moon Race was offensive, and an illustration of how unwilling the American state was to address economic and racial inequalities at home.
America had changed significantly between Kennedy's speech and Armstrong's steps. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965, Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, and the Civil Rights Movement had evolved into the more militant Black Power Movement.
We can see this evolution embodied in Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon." Scott-Heron was a spoken-word soul and jazz artist engaged with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. He released "Whitey on the Moon" in 1970 in response to the Moon Landing, and it gives us a fantastic understanding of what the Moon Race meant to Black Americans. That same year, President Richard Nixon cancelled plans for three more moon landings, after realizing there were more pressing needs for government funding including the 'war on poverty,' but also the Vietnam War.
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What do you think about the history of "whitey on the moon"? How does it change your understanding of the Space Race and American society in the 1960s? Leave your thoughts in the comments!
Back to [[Home]]
Allen, Kera Jones. “Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly (Review).” IEEE Annals of the History of Computing 39, no. 3 (2017): 70–71.
Kersey, Paul. Whitey on the Moon: Race, Politics, and the Death of the US Space Program, 1958-1972. CreateSpace, 2016.
Launius, Roger D. Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings. Smithsonian Institution, 2019.
Maher, Neil M. Apollo in the Age of Aquarius. Harvard University Press, 2017.
Maher, Neil M. “Grounding the Space Race.” Modern American History 1, no. 1 (March 2018): 141–46.
Paul, Richard, and Steven Moss. We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program. University of Texas Press, 2015.
Thompson, Mark A. “Space Race: African American Newspapers Respond to Sputnik and Apollo 11,” University of North Texas, 2007.