Adam Serwer: Trump gave police permission to be brutal
Charles Bolden Jr., the former NASA administrator under Barack Obama, drove from Virginia to Cape Canaveral to witness the launch. Bolden, the first African American to lead the space agency, didn’t stick around for Trump’s speech, but he caught some of it later, including the president’s call for unity. “I found it ironic that that was the president’s theme when half the problem is him,” Bolden told me on a call during his drive back home. “You can’t unify the country when the country doesn’t have a unifying leader.”
In 1968, Bolden was a young graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and bound for Vietnam. He was mesmerized by the moon landing, but he didn’t think about becoming an astronaut until later; he had grown up in the segregated South, and “becoming an astronaut was not something in the list of things that a young black kid from South Carolina did.” For him, the resemblances between America in the 1960s and America today are stark.
Half a century later, the American space program looks quite different. The pace of change has been slow; it took NASA two decades after Alan Shepard’s historic flight in 1961 to send the first African American astronaut, Guion Bluford, to space. But today, the astronaut corps is at least no longer made up of a bunch of white guys with military buzz cuts.
Unlike the Apollo program, the Trump administration’s moon effort—named Artemis, for Apollo’s sister in Greek mythology—is struggling to get the budget it needs, and remains a long shot. NASA officials have promised a diverse crew, including the first woman to set foot on the moon. “This time when we go, we’re going with all of America,” Jim Bridenstine, the current administrator, said last year, at a ceremony to rename the street outside of NASA’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., “Hidden Figures Way,” in honor of the black women who helped send men to the moon.
Naia Butler-Craig, a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering who lives in Atlanta, wants to be part of the Artemis generation. She told me she was in tears when she watched the SpaceX rocket lift off this weekend, overcome with pride. Yet she couldn’t truly relish the moment. How could she? “Sorry, I can’t just focus on the science,” she wrote in a blog post on the day of the launch, which was widely shared among black science communicators. “If we haven’t figured out our issue of racism and colonialism and all this madness here on Earth, we’re just going to continue to corrupt the places that we go,” Butler-Craig said. “I don’t want to repeat what we’ve done here.”
The SpaceX launch drew several million viewers. But as with many significant moments in America’s space program, it was a temporary spike. The launch soon gave way to more pressing headlines, and to experience America that day felt like witnessing two different universes. “I’m here in Cocoa Beach, Florida, looking at the juxtaposition of doing the most technologically advanced thing, sending people to space, but a man dies in police custody,” Leland Melvin, an African American NASA astronaut, said in an Instagram video last week from the Cape Canaveral area. Melvin, who flew aboard the space shuttle, had provided commentary on NASA’s official channel for the launch. “America, let’s get our crap together.”