On a sweaty July day at Cape Canaveral in Florida, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were gearing up ready to board Apollo 11 atop the Saturn V rocket. These two men were about to become the first men on the moon, a feat that would determine America as the technological super power of the world. The launch pad was teeming with energy, nerves, and hope for the future – July 16th 1969 would be a historical day.
Before the countdown, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lead four mules and a farm wagon to the edge of the launch pad. This Poor People’s March was lead by Ralph Abernathy, who marched carrying a sign that reads “$12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8.” Abernathy’s position was simple: why did America focus over 25 billion dollars on the moon program, when that money could have been used to feed and cloth the 8 million Americans that lived in poverty? Abernathy wanted to lay bare the hypocrisy of a country that would rather prioritize the fantasy of its own power over the needs of its people, who were practically still pushing a wagon. At the march he famously said:
“We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.” – Ralph Abernathy
While Abernathy and his supporters chanted and marched outside the gates, Thomas O Maine, the NASA Administrator at the time was organizing the launch. Aware of the situation outside of the gates, Maine invited Abernathy onto the launch site. The two shared a graceful exchange. Maine addressed Abernathy’s position by saying, “Poverty is such a great problem that it makes the Apollo program look like child’s play… If it were possible for us not to push that button and solve the problems you are talking about, we would not push that button.” In response Abernathy urged him to use NASA’s funding and technology to address poverty in America. Maine did not have a response, or a solution. Maine instead asked Reverend Abernathy to lead a prayer before the Astronauts lifted off. Teary eyed, Abernathy agreed.
The launch continued, and as the story goes Neil and Buzz became the first men to leave Earth and walk on the Moon. A few months later, Gil Scott Heron released a spoken word poem titled “Whitey On The Moon” just about summing up everyone’s real thoughts on the matter:
“Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)” – Gil Scott Heron
There is still a lot more to say, about progress both social and technological. This image of four mules and a rocket stays heavy on my mind. In 1969 the United States of America pooled all of its resources, knowledge, and technology into traveling to space. A feat that could have only been dreamed or imagined. Still today it stands as proof that what we dream can come to pass and change the world. However, it will always be easier to pursue technological progress, whether it’s flying cars, quantum computers, or cures for rare diseases. But social progress , dreams of equality, brotherhood and sisterhood require much more from us than just our technology and hard work. It will take sacrifice to bridge that divide, and bring all of us to a truly new world.