Buzz Aldrin salutes the United States flag on the moon as part of the Apollo 11 mission

Photograph curtosy of NASA

Chasing equality—remembering the first moon landing while reclaiming the history that racism and sexism obscured

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot

July 19, 2019

Life on the dairy farm came to a stop. Not many things could make this happen. The rhythms and rigor of dairy production waited for no one. The cows need milking. The day’s chores were the same as the day before, rain or shine, cold and hot days alike.

Except when astronauts landed on the moon.

Now in his eighties, my father remembers quite clearly the standstill that made people gather in the farmhouse and watch on “rabbit ears” television with the rest of the world (literally!) the grainy footage that generations since have had seared into their imaginations. 

Landing on earth myself a few years later, I can only imagine the moment was filled with wonder.  Not too many occasions from the 1960s had the luxury of such exhilaration. The decade just winding down in 1969 had its share of tumult, civil rights advocacy, assassinations of high profile leaders, riots in city streets and at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and a war in Vietnam that divided the nation. That wonder of two men gracefully bouncing across the lunarscape was hard won, especially for those watching from mission control itself. It was the culmination of many years filled with long hours and yes, the great loss and grief that came with the loss of Apollo I and her three member crew during a ground test in January, 1967.

For some Gen Xers, we grew up with NASA as always busy launching missions into space, even as we had our own tragedy of watching the Challenger explosion live on televisions in the classroom. We did not know that first landing on the moon except as footage and retrospective.  Shuttles were more our thing than the Apollo capsules, by then starting to become star attractions for select museums and the Smithsonian. Now, of course, the remaining shuttles are even bigger museum relics, and talk of Mars missions creep ever so closer from science fiction to possibility.  The International Space Station, the Mars rovers and the occasional word about other projects with reportable achievements to share are important, yet the euphoria of July 1969 faded as other decades and other challenges, terrestrial especially, took over the hope and energy that got us to the moon and back.

When we reach milestone anniversaries of key moments in history, it is tempting to tell the story of what happened without much scrutiny of how that moment is remembered. In recent years, we have expanded our appreciation for the key players in meeting NASA’s objective set by President Kennedy. The book “Hidden Figures” and its recent film adaptation raised up the brilliance of African American women who crunched the numbers and contributed mightily to solving the multitude of challenges facing the nation’s best and brightest. 

Such anniversaries present an opportunity to reclaim the history that racism and sexism obscured, bringing the narrative back into more truthful telling with understanding the systemic obstacles overwhelming. NASA recently honored Katherine Johnson for her contributions to the space program by naming a building after her. This month, NASA will rename a street in Washington, D.C., “Hidden Figures Way” in honor of Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, the three women at the center of the book and film as well as “all women who have dedicated their lives honorably serving their country, advancing equality and contributing to the United States space program.”

Such anniversaries present an opportunity to reclaim the history that racism and sexism obscured, bringing the narrative back into more truthful telling with understanding the systemic obstacles overwhelming

Further, we have the opportunity to think through what about our first mission to the moon exemplified the best of human achievement, while also remembering the escalation of Cold War tensions that also fueled the desire to be “first”. We came through the Civil Rights era with still much work to be accomplished and a dream unrealized. In 1961, Kennedy appointed military officer and engineer Ed Dwight, Jr., to be the first African American to enter astronaut training.  Sadly, he would not progress further after the abrupt change of administrations with Kennedy’s assassination, with President Johnson selecting another African American candidate, Robert Henry Johnson, Jr., to be in the training program. After being dropped from the program, Dwight left his military career behind. Tragically, Johnson, Jr., died in a 1967 plane crash, leaving no other African Americans in the program. In his eighties now, Dwight is talking about his brief NASA career, thanks in part to the persistence of the producers of “Chasing the Moon”, a multi-part PBS documentary on the moon landing.

As we revisit the significant achievement of landing astronauts on the moon, we recognize that the triumphant moment was indeed “one small step for man”, yet it was not living up to the loftier language of “one giant leap for [hu]mankind”. The United States still struggles with its diversity, even as we find again and again that the country’s greatness has been built by hands of many hues and the intellect and creativity of persons from varied backgrounds and experiences.   For every Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom or John Glenn, we have the heroes left obscure at the time, whose race or gender kept them from immediate access to opportunity, yet their tenacity and abilities were undeniable, even to the histories told that initially overlooked them.

Science fiction often gets due credit for imagining a future where technology, interplanetary travel and encounters with “alien” life are met by brave humans who reflect the best of our diversity and give witness to a global society that transcended (for the most part) nationalism and our baser instincts and practices before they headed out beyond the solar system. Such writing is often the imaginings of the writer who needs desperately to see such a world off in the promised future, burdened by the knowledge of humanity’s history and first or second hand experience of the failings of our present.

As we idly dream while reading a novel, watch the latest cinematic CGI wizardry on the big screen or iPhone, or simply stare up into the night sky at the stars in their silent majesty high above, we return again and again to the realities down below and all around us. We hope to chase the moon and Mars, and beyond, yet we still have a longer journey within us and with one another before we reach our higher aspirations.

Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is the associate executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New York State

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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