Up or down

America was a roller coaster over the weekend.

Watching a SpaceX rocket lift off from launch complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center and deliver two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station was exhilarating, even more so because my son worked on the spacecraft. I’m glad that America hasn’t given up on space, as it looked not too many years ago. Public-private partnerships are saving money and accelerating timelines, and I’m heartened that even when we agree about almost nothing in politics, we can still fund (some kinds of) science.

Watching Americans protest police brutality and systemic injustice was also heartening. Watching heavily armed police confront peaceful protesters was heartbreaking. Watching the president once again come up empty on empathy and ratcheting up the combative rhetoric on Twitter was pretty much the only predictable thing that happened all weekend.

When I came to the U.S. as a student in the 1980s, I was an idealistic young nerd coming to the country that had flown humans on the moon and vanquished racism in the aftermath of the civil rights movement. I was not a fan of Reagan, but I was a fan of people who worked hard for progress and justice. That’s what America meant to me. The U.S. in the late ’80s was the right choice for a computer nerd, but it took me about three days to realize I’d been wrong about the vanquishing racism part. The civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s had many successes, but there is much more work to do before we can talk about vanquishment.

Just like last weekend, two of the things I admire about America — a commitment to space exploration and the pursuit of social justice — have intersected before. On the eve of Apollo 11’s flight to the moon on July 16, 1969, Reverend Ralph Abernathy led a protest at launch complex 39A. Abernathy said that money spent on the space program should be sent to alleviate poverty instead:

What we can do for space and exploration we demand that we do for starving people.

Promises were made and mostly forgotten. Within a few years, the moon program was defunded (not re-allocated to fighting poverty), the civil rights movement shifted into a lower gear, and the country became pre-occupied with Vietnam, Watergate, oil, hostages, and just getting through the 1970s. Today, poverty rates in the United States are still shamefully high, income inequality is rising, and the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic could be far worse than the 2008 financial crisis.

Some people say we shouldn’t be sending rockets into space when there is so much injustice down here. I think that’s a false choice. I’m not a historian or economist, I’m just a nerd and you know my bias since the second sentence. The U.S. must have the capacity to solve more than one problem at a time. We must make a real commitment to a just society, and I believe that neither story is done.

Space is hard. This is harder, but we must address it. We have to fix oversight and accountability of police. We have to include more voices in the political process and find leaders who will not only serve themselves. If we directed one hundredth of the energy that goes into Twitter punditry into inclusive, collaborative policy-making, we could put some constructive energy toward fixing our democracy. For example, take all of the brainpower that was wasted on interpreting Rudy Giuliani’s accidental tweet on Saturday and apply it to a real policy problem, like smart and just allocation of pandemic relief spending.

Human spaceflight is a model for cooperation in the face of ideological differences. You have to focus on the job, or it won’t get done. If you watched the arrival of the astronauts at the ISS on Sunday, you witnessed Americans working side by side with Russians. Million of people watched Saturday’s launch, and there are up to a hundred thousand people in the whole supply chain of the project. As Ralph Abernathy also said:

On the eve of [humans’] noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation’s achievements in space and the heroism of the three men embarking for the moon

A just society lifts us up. Space exploration inspires us. All of us have to solve more than two problems in the course of every day. Our government should do the same.

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