Ask What Your Country Can Do for You: The U.S.-Russia Space Race in the Context of Race Relations | Teen Ink

Ask What Your Country Can Do for You: The U.S.-Russia Space Race in the Context of Race Relations

June 29, 2022
By ShaneStesner BRONZE, New York, New York
ShaneStesner BRONZE, New York, New York
1 article 0 photos 0 comments


The Space Race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the twentieth century is commonly believed to be driven by unequivocal support among the American public. In reality, however, many U.S. citizens needed convincing before they would agree to allocate their tax dollars toward space exploration, especially when supporting this initiative required a redirection of resources away from beneficial social programs. Overall, middle-class Whites had few qualms about funding America’s advancements in space. Yet many communities of color, in dire need of services that would have played a crucial role in their economic recovery from slavery and subsequent segregation, fervently advocated against the government’s prioritization of space exploration over the general wellbeing of minorities. This paper thereby explores popular discontent, political cynicism, and economic inequality among African Americans during this time period. In addition, it examines responses from the media, politicians, artists, civil rights activists, and the Soviet Union regarding the Space Race and their repercussions on racial equity. Lastly, a connection is drawn between this era in U.S. history and civil rights issues surrounding contemporary space exploration. 

Background Context

On July 15, 1969, hundreds of U.S. citizens gathered at Cape Kennedy to support Apollo 11’s launch that would land humans on the moon for the first time in history. Meanwhile, Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights activist and head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led a group of twenty-five impoverished African American families to a meeting with NASA officials. “Armed with four mules hitched to two rickety wagons (meant to symbolize the impoverished rural south),” Abernathy advocated for a reordering of America’s “‘distorted sense of national priorities,’” in which the government was almost entirely focused on beating the Soviets in the Space Race. Abernathy’s peaceful, deeply symbolic assembly illuminated America’s rampant domestic inequality. Many Black Americans’ living conditions still closely resembled those of the Jim Crow south while a group of three white Americans were about to be strapped to a high-tech rocket—a gadget so expensive that it could replace hundreds of mules with brand-new cars. Aiming to disrupt the U.S.’s space-related advancements, dissenters like Abernathy attempted to force congress to redirect funds toward social services for the betterment of American society, rather than the preservation of technological superiority and prestige. 

From a historical lens, negative perceptions of American domestic policies have tended to fuel foreign policy reforms. Facing international backlash after a “segregated World War II” in which many people of color were forbidden from fighting alongside their White counterparts, “Safeguarding the US’s overseas image was of prominent importance.” As such, upon the onset of the Korean War, it was “that motivation more than anything that contributed to the … deployment of integrated troops during the Korean War, just five short years” later, as the Federal Government sought to disprove the international narrative that the U.S. was domestically unstable. Adjusting its foreign policies accordingly, the U.S. was able to maintain its global prestige, quell domestic discontent, and unite the populace against the spread of communism in Southeast Asia. 

In this instance, however, the U.S. was not faced with the fears of global thermonuclear conflict, the possibility of declaring a loss on its exceedingly high defense budget (much of which was directed toward the Space Race), and the threat of entirely losing its global foothold to the emerging Soviet superpower. In fact, leading up to the launch of Apollo 11, “consistently throughout the 1960s, a majority of Americans did not believe Apollo was worth the cost.” Among this majority, “the black community was especially willing to point out the hypocrisy of spending on the future while neglecting the present.” Still, however, with predominantly bipartisan support in Congress, the U.S. pushed on, with but few dissidents. 

New York Congressman Ed Koch was one of the only political representatives to echo the wider sentiments of American minorities. Koch said that he could not “justify approving moneys to find out whether or not there is some microbe on Mars, when in fact [he knew that] there [were] rats in Harlem apartments.” Despite his disapproval, it was too little, too late; America had already irrevocably committed itself to space exploration. In the days prior to and during the launch of Apollo 11, public support escalated; a majority of the U.S. population now supported America’s ever-expanding involvement in the Space Race. This turn of events encouraged public officials to divert spending from domestic issues such as poverty alleviation toward competing with the U.S.S.R. in the Space Race.

Generally, public disapproval among the Black community during the Space Race assumed one of two forms. On one hand, activists such as Abernathy decried spending on aerospace technology altogether and proposed that such funds be directed toward solving humanitarian issues that continually plagued African American communities. Another type of disapproval assumed the form of civil rights activists framing U.S. racial discord as a national embarrassment. In a 1957 editorial by an unnamed writer in a historically Black newspaper, the author noted the following insights:

“while the nation [was] bickering over whether it should extend full citizenship to black members of its breed or allow tradition to rule, Communist Russia [had] launched its second man-made moon…the other nations of the world…[could not] hear [the U.S.]—because what we are doing at home speaks too loudly.”

From this perspective, any accomplishment by the U.S. in space exploration would be tainted by the government’s lack of regard for Black citizens, opening the door for further international criticism. In either case, with minority voices suppressed by a government that—at large—actively and intentionally distracted the general public from its oppressive policies by flashily satisfying its space-oriented agenda, Black Americans felt the need to amplify their sentiments. Indeed, economic disenfranchisement and political distrust would create the necessary conditions for a tidal wave of African American opposition—aiming to expose the federal government’s negligence. 

Popular Discontent and Political Cynicism

Spearheaded by civil rights activists during the Space Race, African American public figures sought to portray the initiative as immoral and irrational. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for example, once asked the question during a speech, “On what scale of values is this a program of progress?” In fact, America’s push for space exploration established a tradeoff between two of President Kennedy’s strongest principles: social progress and technological advancement. In the words of civil rights activist Ralph Abernathy, there existed a “tragic and inexcusable gulf...between America’s technological abilities and ... social injustices.” 

This growing void laid the groundwork for a profound distrust in the government, perpetuating anti-Space Race rhetoric. For Kennedy, however, there was a personal advantage behind opting to allocate financial resources toward the Space Race instead of social reform: the political axiom of rallying behind a single cause. In the short term, using the Space Race as a point of political leverage may have been positive for Kennedy’s approval ratings among America’s White majority. For example, “NASA administrators and supporters, who…tended to be more conservative and from middle America, saw the Apollo missions as…a feather-in-our-cap that ‘we beat the Russians.’” Nevertheless, Kennedy’s glaring neglect of racial justice left an untreated wound in America’s side with lasting consequences for its disenfranchised minorities. 

Uneasy feelings among the Black population date to the days of World War II; the government’s preoccupation with the war effort “[drove] the U.S.’s limited forays into equal opportunity during the war[,]…causing [widespread] public discomfort.” Contrarily, while a rebellious fervor began to brew among the African American population in the years following World War II, the consensus among white, middle-class Americans regarding America’s war efforts was much more positive. During the early years of the Second World War, propaganda united White Americans under an umbrella of nationalism; America was much less concerned with guaranteeing equal rights than it was uniting the population to support the coming war effort. These feelings were eventually channeled toward minorities after Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, interning Asian Americans in concentration camps subsequent to the Pearl Harbor attacks. 

This trend continued during the Cold War when Senator Joseph McCarthy’s unfounded attacks against supposed communists that had infiltrated the U.S. government were intended to arouse public support against the Russians. While McCarthy’s onslaught persisted, the Civil Rights Movement was once again neglected. Becoming cognizant of this repetitive historical theme that prioritized military competition with the Russians over racial justice, factions of African Americans lost substantial amounts of trust in the government, and began to vigorously protest against the Space Race. 

Economic Inequality

Financial instability among people of color was a key contributing factor to the birth of the anti-Space Race movement. Though the moon landing was seen as a massive accomplishment by many Americans, it seemed to confound the public about the government’s true priorities, leading to the creation of the popular phrase ‘if they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they...?’ Civil rights activists increasingly began to realize that they were not alone in their disenchantment with the U.S. government. In fact, many Americans began to believe that the scientific advancements made by NASA were frivolous, especially when incurable diseases and generational poverty ran rampant nationwide. However, instead of uniting the American populace toward realigning the government’s priorities, most of the backlash soon dissipated. For most U.S. citizens, particularly Whites, the moon landing was seen as a proof of concept that much could be accomplished when a nation, and upwards of twenty-billion dollars in funding, was dead-set on accomplishing a single goal. Black Americans, however, questioned why equality could not be that very goal. 

During the 1960s, Black Americans experienced poverty at disproportionate rates. In 1969, there were over 7,680,105 African Americans across the U.S. who lived below the poverty line; their poverty rate was 31.1 percent as compared to 9.5 percent for whites. Furthermore, 62 percent of Black farmers across the U.S. lived in poverty. Indeed, Black Americans were systematically disenfranchised, not only by segregation, but by political policies that structurally harmed their communities—namely redlining.

“Arrested progress in the fight against poverty and residential segregation has helped concentrate many African Americans in some of the least desirable housing in some of the lowest-resourced communities in America. In addition to much higher poverty rates, blacks suffer much more from concentrated poverty…Concentrated poverty is correlated with a host of social and economic challenges. Children in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores, and are more likely to drop out of school…Severely cost-burdened renters and homeowners, who are spending at least half of their income on housing, are much less able to save for things such as continued education for themselves or their children, and are thus less likely to reap the employment and wealth benefits advanced education brings. Thus, without greater access to decent housing, the struggle for black socioeconomic advancement will be dramatically harder.”

In light of such deeply rooted barriers, the opportunity cost of excessive government expenditures in the Space Race was a prevention of necessary socioeconomic progress for African Americans. The protests that surrounded the Space Race were an outraged backlash against much broader systems of oppression in America’s economic structure—many of which could have been addressed by funding used to compete with the Soviet Union during the Space Race.

While demonstrations aimed to highlight the absurdity of the Space Race and glaring inequality among the American citizenry, they seemed to exert little effect on the thinking of government officials. When confronted with a question regarding the frivolousness of the space program and its effect on domestic poverty levels, NASA executive Thomas O. Paine responded by stating, “‘Poverty is such a great problem that it makes the Apollo program look like child’s play.’” While NASA’s budget was certainly not large enough to end world poverty, Paine’s response highlights the naivety and shortsightedness present within the federal government throughout the 1960s. Many government officials, lawmakers, and bureaucrats were, figuratively speaking, blinded by the stars—hyper-fixated on beating the Soviets in a game of rocket-launching. Despite Paine’s flawed rationale, by directing the five-billion-dollar budget back toward social services—roughly forty-five billion dollars by today’s standards, adjusting for inflation—it is highly likely that funds used for the space program could have drastically improved impoverished Americans’ quality of life, and made steps toward socioeconomic equality for minorities. 

After the U.S. had—de facto—won the Space Race, NASA lost political support. As such, NASA’s budget was cut significantly. Desperate for more capital, “NASA to promise[d] [to apply] space technology to…pressing inner city problems such as air and water pollution, poor sewage, refuse disposal and affordable housing,” providing an added incentive for policymakers to increase its operating budget. In an attempt to offset America’s glaring racial disparities, NASA created an Urban Systems Office in 1972 to combat unsanitary living conditions in inner cities. By repurposing tools and technologies that were initially designed for the Apollo program, NASA attempted to help financially impoverished people by installing water filtration systems, heaters, and air conditioners in low-income housing, as well as setting up air pollution sensors to monitor emissions. Though this program could have exerted lasting effects on communities in need nationwide, the vast majority of its tools were simply novelties that were not widely implemented, part of a public relations campaign to placate outrage from America’s minorities. “NASA’s efforts to spin off space technologies to clean up the inner city ultimately failed to improve daily life for African American urbanites.” On the surface, the Urban Systems Office seemed to be a good-faith program to repair the damage that the Space Race had already caused to disadvantaged communities. In actuality, however, the office was simply a means to secure more funding so that NASA could escalate rocket production once more. 

The Role of the Media

In a broader sense, the media played an instrumental role in moderating the debate over the Space Race, controlling the narratives of each side in favor of America’s White majority. More specifically, the news’s portrayal of the future of race relations in America was derived from a ‘color-blind’ philosophy in which all citizens of America (even those who were less fortunate) were treated as completely equal. In theory, this ideology may seem ideal for marginalized communities. In practice, however, it ignored the inherent struggles that people of color endured on a daily basis. Colorblindness failed to recognize the adversity of Black Americans, and the fact that Blacks were still systemically unequal—lacking the same socioeconomic opportunities as Whites. Indeed, this same ‘color-blind’ philosophy was used to justify the government’s cuts to social spending in favor of excessively funding the research and development of rockets, diverting the public’s attention away from America’s deep-rooted, race-based internal strife. 

Meanwhile, predominately Black newspapers aimed to dismantle the colorblind narrative, supercharge the anti-Space Race movement, and expose the federal government’s malfeasance. Many of these publications placed specific emphasis on the educational disparities plaguing the American public. Progressive journalist Charles H. Loeb, writing during the Eisenhower administration, noted that “the institution of the Jim-Crow school…[may have] deprived this nation of the black scientist who might have solved the technological kinks delaying our satellite launching.” Loeb presented a new, less extreme angle on the Space Race; by effectively conceding that the race was indeed necessary, he called attention to the fact that people of color were still actively prevented from contributing to it. To this end, Loeb questioned why many African Americans were being deprived of a high-quality public education in the underserved areas where they lived—an education that would have greatly benefited the U.S. in the Space Race itself. Loeb’s sentiments were echoed by other activists during the Space Race. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins, in a public speech before the Commonwealth Club of California, posed a series of important questions:

“‘Can we meet,’ he asked, ‘the challenge of Moscow in the sciences and in war with a country divided upon race and color? Can we afford to deny to any boy or girl the maximum of education, that education which may mean the difference between democratic life and totalitarian death?’”

In another speech, activist Benjamin R. Epstein asserted that “‘national welfare requires that every qualified youth, regardless of race or creed. . .must be given the opportunity to become part of our trained scientific manpower pool.’” Nonetheless, the lasting institutional injustices of Jim Crow and the racist sentiments that pervaded STEM fields prevented African Americans from entering the technological powerhouse of NASA. NASA was broadly criticized for having one of the lowest “minority hiring records” among all sectors of the U.S. government, which further blemished the Space Race in the eyes of racially disenfranchised people. Accordingly, Black newspapers underscored the “untapped resource” of oppressed African American communities. 

By adopting a different perspective, some Black writers aimed to arouse distrust in the government—simultaneously representing the wider feelings of Black Americans during the Space Race. Loeb, in the same editorial as the aforementioned, noted that President Eisenhower “‘did a bit of covering up’” instead of abiding by his long-standing mantra of “‘laying all of the facts before [the populace].’” This is partly because Eisenhower faced massive public backlash after the launch of Sputnik. As a proponent of laissez-faire economics and an opponent of hands-on policies such as deficit spending, Eisenhower applied much of his economic policy toward the Space Race, allowing interdepartmental competition between branches of the U.S. government to create and launch a satellite. However, much of the American public blamed this policy for the U.S.’s lack of progression during the early stages of the Space Race; many citizens believed that the U.S. would have been better served if Eisenhower had concentrated the government’s resources in a single agency, avoiding administrative waste and inefficiency. Eisenhower eventually conceded that this previous policy may have been ineffective. Loeb, however, pointed out that Eisenhower’s explanation belied the true reason why the U.S. was falling behind: racism. Inside the federal government, there was an interdepartmental competition between races, an “intercitizen rivalry” of sorts. Indeed, there were two ongoing races in the U.S.: one over space exploration, and the other (at this point in time, in its elementary stages) over civil rights. By characterizing Eisenhower as untrustworthy and corrupt, and his excuse for the U.S.’s shortfalls as myopic and superficial, Loeb used the media to evoke and amplify feelings of distrust amongst the Black community and further the anti-Space Race movement. 

Political Responses

When the anti-Space Race movement had transformed from a mere whisper to a profound protest, it had become clear that the federal government enabled the politicization of issues of basic human rights to detract from African American progress with respect to civil rights. In 1960s America, patriotism and nationalism were defined by maintaining a lead over foreign adversaries while ignoring the pressing issues on the country’s own soil such as racism and civil unrest. The growing void between the federal government’s technology-driven priorities and its incongruous minority population laid the groundwork for a profound distrust in the government, perpetuating anti-Space Race rhetoric. While politicians like President Kennedy actively tried to suppress domestic discontent and rally the nation behind America’s space endeavors, Black Americans formed politically-charged factions and interest groups to help institutionalize social change. Many of these factions subscribed to Afrofuturism—an ideology that began as a cultural movement among African American singer-songwriters, visual artists, and performers, but eventually became central to political narratives among activists of color nationwide. 

“Afrofuturism, described…as ‘speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture-and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future’…is not restricted to images of exclusion from white technological progress, because only within a certain ideological field is black experience the opposite of technoculture.” 

Afrofuturist culture also actively combatted the color-blind rhetoric propagated by the media and many American Whites. Afrofuturism sought to achieve this goal by emphasizing the power of African Americans to produce similar societal and technological advancements to their Caucasian counterparts. 

“From the 1950s onwards…US magazine and paperback tradition postulated and presumed a color-blind future, generally depicting humankind as ‘one race, which has emerged from an unhappy past of racial misunderstandings and conflicts’…This shared assumption accounts for the relative absence of people of color from such [science fiction]: if race was going to prove unimportant, why even bother thinking about it, when energies could instead be devoted to more pressing matters, such as how to colonize the solar system or build a better robot?”

Nevertheless, Afrofuturism advanced far beyond simple science fiction tales, which merely fantasized about what Black Americans could achieve in America. Soon, Afrofuturist ideals began to take root in various countercultural political movements that aimed to institutionalize power against Space Race supporters. Amidst the height of the Space Race, for example, “the Black Panther Party (BPP) created programs that fit into their own vision for the future,” intending to actually achieve the utopian future that science fiction novels and other Afrofuturist literature, artwork, and music had constructed. Many of these policies were far ahead of their time. For example, the party’s “breakfast program for children”—which aimed to supply Black children with adequate levels of food needed to succeed throughout the day in the classroom— “predated the [Federal Government’s] expansion of the national School Breakfast Program to all public schools. Moreover, the BPP’s “free health clinics [were] a precursor of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.” Overall, this party aimed to prioritize Black progress in order to achieve equality with whites. Although the BPP was never able to gain a significant foothold in the U.S. federal legislature or state governments, many of its policies formed a fundamental framework for advancing equity and advocating against the Space Race. Although previous works of idealized science fiction had subtly underscored the idea that a prosperous future for African Americans was unattainable, tangible policymaking by the BPP showed the opposite. As Seattle hip-hop artist Gabriel Teodros remarked, “‘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.’”

Protests from the Black community also influenced the U.S. government’s fiscal expenditures with regard to NASA. As previously mentioned, NASA’s budget was cut “After the United States won the race to the Moon, [and] space exploration lost political support.” However, the government did not solely cut NASA’s funding because it believed that space exploration technology was obsolete. In fact, many congressional representatives became increasingly worried “...about the degraded, unhealthy urban environment…[and] Congress responded in the early 1970s by slashing NASA’s budget by more than twenty percent.”  Welfare spending was subsequently increased, but only toward the early 1970s when the Space Race had essentially ended. President Nixon significantly expanded the populace’s access to welfare, passing a “considerable amount of health and human service legislation…and a substantial addition to the federal government’s responsibility for social welfare…includ[ing] the Supplemental Security Income program in 1972.” Nixon also mandated participation in the food stamps program across all states. Nevertheless, Nixon’s focus generally remained abroad, as the Cold War continued to rage. His increases in welfare spending were not explicitly in support of the anti-Space Race movement, but rather part of a broader political platform that was not contingent on NASA budget cuts. In fact, Nixon’s domestic policies tended to sidestep race relations altogether. Although Nixon’s funding for welfare did, to a degree, benefit minorities and the disenfranchised, he failed to explicitly address the racism, ignorance, and negligence of the federal government—the primary causes of racial disparities in America during the Cold War. 

Artistic Responses

As many of their voices were actively suppressed by nationalistic cheers and a lack of monetary means to organize massive protests or social movements, some African Americans turned to a universally understood language to express their grievances: art. In a series of artistic endeavors, people of color in America shed light on the government’s ignorance of impoverished, disenfranchised communities during the Space Race. 

In his song “Whitey on the Moon,” artist Gill Scott-Heron responded to the ongoing anti-Space Race movement within the U.S., aiming to musically amplify its message. The song reflects the pervasive political cynicism that led many people of color to develop an ever-expanding mistrust in the American legislative system, creating the necessary conditions for an expansion of the anti-Space Race movement. With minority voices suppressed by a government that proactively distracted the general public from its oppressive policies, the song emblemized African Americans’ cries for help as the Space Race disproportionately suffocated their attempts at socioeconomic progression. Just as Eisenhower used American culture—for example, the Air Force-glorifying movie Bombers B-52—to inspire enthusiasm for the U.S.’s expansion of air and space technology, Heron leveraged his song “Whitey on the Moon” to draw attention to racial injustice. Though Eisenhower’s propaganda campaign was rewarded with a substantial amount of public support, there remained a minority of citizens that actively detested America’s quest toward space, composed primarily of socioeconomically disenfranchised people of color. 

“Whitey on the Moon” captures the impact of the Space Race on people of color, describing how, while “Whitey’s on the moon,” Black Americans will still be struggling to pay common expenses “Ten years from now” in the wake of slavery and Jim Crow. Specifically, Scott-Heron laments about how his landlord “upped [his] rent las’ night,” likely to exacerbate his losses from the 1960s tax hike used to fund space exploration. Moreover, he mentions how he “can’t pay no doctor bill,” from when “A rat...bit [his] sister Nell,” highlighting inner cities’ unsanitary living conditions and poor health services, circumstances that could have been improved using the funds that were alternatively spent on space exploration. 

“Scott-Heron then runs through a litany of urban ailments—from a lack of hot water, electric lights, and working toilets in inner-city apartments to drug addiction and high medical bills associated with life in the unhealthy American ghetto—and tethers them to the cost of placing white men on the lunar surface.”

Overall, the song speaks to the perilous African American experience, an anguished plea to unmask the government’s systemically racist agenda. Heron asserts that the government would prioritize the welfare of Whites before people of color. In fact, the artist even suggests that the Space Race itself was simply a cover-up for the Civil Rights movement—a tool used to distract the world from the lasting, widespread racism in America by stripping African Americans of the monetary means to have their voices heard. As it gained popularity across the country, “Whitey on the Moon” was described as “evidence of growing awareness of the struggles of urban blight in the US,” which had arisen from a profound distrust in America’s government and increasing socioeconomic inequality. 

“Whitey on the Moon” also exemplifies a pre-existing subculture of African American music known as “Blaxploitation.” This genre is designed to underline systemic discrimination in America, helping civil rights initiatives gain traction and support. This form of music was characteristically rooted in African American tradition, empathetically speaking directly to Black people living in inner cities. Not only easy to listen to, Blaxploitation music was also easy to understand, aiming to expose the mistreatment of Black people during the 1960s-70s in an accessible manner for underprivileged Americans who were uninformed or uneducated about political affairs. In this way, Blaxploitation artists used their music as quasi-political propaganda against outspoken White policymakers that controlled the government. In the case of Scott-Heron, his lyrics exposed the ways in which America’s ruling class consistently exploited people of color via the Space Race, disacknowledging their struggles. Though he intended to gain public support for his ideas about the Space Race, Scott-Heron was soon ostracized from public radio, illustrating the systemic inequality that existed for Black Americans even after Jim Crow. 

Scott-Heron was not the only Black artist to criticize the government’s irresponsible spending habits and frivolous push toward Space. In the field of visual art, an image drawn by cartoonist Hugh Haynie entitled “American Know-How” features a young African American boy struggling with terrible living conditions. The boy is ostensibly malnourished, while the small apartment that surrounds him is incredibly dirty and decrepit. A stark contrast to the ominous background, the boy holds a small toy rocket ship. As such, while America’s advances in space were apparently joyful, such progress came at the expense of children whose families unwillingly subsidized them; while the boy may be playing with a rocket ship, he fails to realize that the same rocket ship is what is, in part, causing his struggles. As such, the picture aims to spread awareness about the negative repercussions of the Space Race, informing Americans about how this U.S.-Soviet competition perpetuated systemic injustice among people of color nationwide. 

Culturally speaking, “While some black activists and artists decried the Space Race,” other artists incorporated Afrofuturist ideals into their artwork. For example, “Musical artists like Sun Ra, [an] eclectic jazz musician[,]…infused his work with futuristic and space themes,” even alluding to Scott-Heron’s popular song in his own film “Space is the Place.” In the film, “when [someone] asks Ra if there are any “whiteys” in space, he answers that white people take frequent trips to the moon,” placing whites and blacks on equal footing in the neutral backdrop of space. Ra’s rhetoric highlights the potential of Black Americans to achieve the same level of technological progression as their white counterparts—even in a landscape where African Americans were persistently oppressed. 

Civil Responses

As word of the anti-Space Race movement exponentially spread across African American culture, protests against NASA reached new highs. “To broadcast their concerns regarding the degraded urban environment, and the Space Race’s role in exacerbating it, civil rights leaders employed tried-and-true strategies they had used during the 1950s and early 1960s to critique NASA in the early 1970s.” In one example, protestors partook in a sit-in beneath a scale model of an Apollo lunar lander in Houston, Texas, just as thousands of civil rights protestors had sat down at diners across the American South several years prior. In another example, demonstrators attempted to replicate the Selma-to-Montgomery demonstrations of 1965, assembling in the “‘March against Moon Rocks’ [protest] from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Cape Canaveral,” just before the launch of Apollo 14. Although dissenters could not physically travel to the moon, they organized boycotts nonetheless. Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader and future Washington, D.C. mayor Marion Barry “used his position…[at] a program that retrained unemployed black men in the nation’s capital to encourage the country’s black community to ignore President Nixon’s National Day of Participation”—a new federal holiday that gave many Americans the day off to celebrate the anniversary of the first moonwalk. In both cases, the protests were rooted in the history of the civil rights movement, displaying continuities in both the form of demonstration and subject matter. They did not solely demand money, healthcare, education, and housing, but continued to peacefully ask for the same form of racial equality that Martin Luther King Jr. had demanded during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts just a few years prior. Though segregation, at this point, had legally ended, the federal government and NASA’s institutional racism remained. 

U.S.S.R. Responses

Across the Atlantic Ocean, the U.S.S.R. was exploiting deep divides within the U.S. populace—many of which were caused by the anti-Space Race movement—and simultaneously dealing with a civil rights crisis of its own. During the early 20th century, the U.S.S.R. had been “cordial hosts” to most Americans—both Black and White—despite the fact that, overall, diplomatic relations between the two countries remained slightly fraught. Furthermore, the U.S.S.R. tended to remain open to the diversity of other nations, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa; “there was a seven-fold increase in sub-Saharan African students studying in Moscow” during the start of the Cold War. While America upheld segregationist policies until 1964 and suppressed African American voices, the Soviets recruited the brightest African minds to contribute to the growth of the “service to the highest ideals of their state.” These actions were also perceptually beneficial for the U.S.S.R.: while U.S. lawmakers were still arguing over whether people of color had the right to attend school with Whites, the Soviets were providing such disenfranchised communities with enhanced educational opportunities. However, as tensions heightened during the Cold War, the interracial dynamic in Russia changed in proportion to the international dynamic; “accusations of racism, cultural impropriety and a general unease between the local Russian population and their guests, [churned] up to political disturbances throughout the decades.” As such, civil rights became a contentious issue between the U.S. and the Soviets.

While the U.S. and Soviets sought to compete over this issue, the U.S. failed to adequately address the Black community’s qualms about the Space Race. Instead, the U.S. undertook a campaign of international virtue signaling, suppressing Black voices domestically, but ostensibly uplifting them in other settings. The Nixon administration did indeed “[demonstrate a] willingness to deal with the apartheid South African government.” While this appeared to be in support of racial equality and civil rights, the U.S. ultimately did not stop South Africa’s government from overtly discriminating against people of color—just as the U.S. had done only a decade prior via segregation. As such, the Nixon administration’s stance toward South Africa was a “clear expression of [the] Cold War perception that fighting the Soviets trumped” tangible policy measures to support “human rights.” As mentioned previously, the federal government neglected to address the concerns of the BPP about domestic civil rights policies—which included objections to the government’s active role in the Space Race. Nonetheless, the government supported the BPP’s “complaints about rampant racism in Castro’s Cuba;” the government’s priorities were to “support anything that challenged the U.S.S.R.,” and not actually strive toward creating a more egalitarian world for people of all races. Meanwhile, the Soviets continued their educational outreach program in Africa. 

Soviet media outlets also became important tools in shaping perceptions of U.S. race relations. “The Soviets depicted the US as a haven of racism and repression,” angering the U.S., and compounding further Space Race competition and perpetuating the Cold War. Yet these Soviet media representations had little effect on domestic American civil rights policies. Soon enough, competition with the Soviets over race relations and the Space Race was dispelled during the late 1960s, as the “Vietnam [War] had eclipsed civil rights as a defining issue affecting U.S. prestige abroad.” Instead of exploiting the internal racial divides caused by the U.S.’s excessive spending on the Space Race, the U.S.S.R. shifted its attention to domestic discontent surrounding Vietnam, and America’s failures therein. 

The Contemporary Space Race

In the modern day, the world faces a new Space Race. Racism and poverty remain incredibly prevalent throughout the U.S., and investment in aerospace technology is higher than ever before. NASA itself has assumed a new role in the aerospace field, having “been relegated to client…funding source and launch management support.” Private companies have superseded NASA in space exploration, as SpaceX, Blue Origin, Rocket Lab, and United Launch Alliance all compete within the U.S. for government contracts to launch satellites and humans into Space. Externally, China is rising as a superpower in this domain. Not only is China constructing its own space station after being banned from the International Space Station for decades, but it is rapidly launching new telecommunication satellites, and even challenging the U.S. in the race back to the moon and beyond. Now, there exists a more complex ethical dilemma for the U.S., with multiple new variables. Should NASA refuse to sign contracts with private companies, limit government spending, and terminate all space exploration entirely, eliminating thousands of jobs and a young, thriving industry? Should private companies even be allowed to launch their own rockets into space and commercialize this industry? Should NASA continue to spend billions on space technology to match China’s ever-increasing space hegemony and preserve its image as a global superpower, simultaneously stripping thousands of impoverished Americans of needed welfare funds? For the time being, it appears as if NASA will continue the status quo; so far, opposition from minority communities has generally been low. The U.S. space program’s goal, at this point in time, appears to be “the commercialization of space, the next capitalist frontier,” a goal that has the potential to “exacerbate…growing inequalities” just as it did during the Space Race.

As such, there remains a distinct possibility that another anti-Space Race movement will arise. Just as public distrust and cynicism created the necessary conditions for the first anti-Space Race movement, “private space contractors are likely to face fewer regulatory barriers and have less transparency than NASA.” Without public oversight, the hypothetical second wave of protests against space exploration are bound to be even more powerful than the first. Should that second wave come, the framework for popular resistance already exists—protests during the 1960s were successful in forcing the federal government to cut NASA’s budget after a significant amount of backlash and political pressure. Only now, this sort of pressure will likely be more intense than ever. With the widespread use of social media, organizers will be better equipped to rally support behind an anti-Space Race cause, and directly coerce politicians into passing policy in favor of social spending. Furthermore, the first anti-Space Race movement has entrenched itself in modern pop culture already. “The spacey influences of musicians and bands like Sun Ra”—the same jazz artist that produced a short film to oppose the Space Race— “show up in the music of today’s black artists such as Janelle Monáe, Kendrick Lamar and The Coup.” 

Concluding Remarks

Born out of a U.S. government whose leaders defined patriotism as a lack of domestic discord, the Space Race’s militaristic strong-arm detracted from African American progress. Indeed, the anti-Space Race movement speaks to the perilous African American experience—an anguished plea to unmask the government’s systemically racist agenda. People of color did not surrender their basic human rights without a fight. Economic distress, political distrust, and the media created optimal conditions for a movement that aimed to expose the government’s negligence with respect to rectifying racial injustice. In modern-day America, society faces a similar dilemma. The government has now set its sights on Mars, using billions of dollars to fund private contractors like SpaceX and Boeing, all while its budget for social spending and welfare programs dwindles. As the government enters this new space race, it should redefine its interpretation of patriotism in terms of empowering underserved citizens. In so doing, the government can prioritize the needs of over 44 million people who have been structurally disenfranchised for decades before it sends a small crew of its own to an uninhabited celestial body.


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The author's comments:

Shane S. is a rising senior in high school. As the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of its Law Review, he honed a passion for championing the socioeconomic rights of marginalized communities. Furthermore, he serves as a Public Speaking Mentor for underrepresented middle school students through his school’s Reach Program. Shane is also an ardent climate advocate, entrepreneur, and an award-winning debater on national and state levels. In his spare time, he enjoys playing the guitar and drums. 

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