Whitey back on the moon? The song of the 1970s is the anthem of Americans lamenting the billionaires’ space race

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Welcome to the latest action-packed episode of Billionaires in Space. In case you missed the most recent action: Sir Richard Branson has reached the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane. That puts him ahead of his rich and dirty pioneer colleagues Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. Bezos hit the skies on Tuesday in his Blue Origin New Shepard rocket and space capsule. Musk, it seems, is playing a longer game. No simple space tourism for him. He wants to colonize Mars.

Some argue that such explorations represent the true spirit of adventure and enterprise. After all, Branson and Bezos haven’t just flown in their own ships; they also paid them. Others, however, are already singing a different tune, which dates from days after the original moon landing. If you don’t already know, now is a good time to familiarize yourself with “Whitey on the Moon” by Gil Scott-Heron.

The preeminent spoken word artist of the 1970s and 1980s, and a spiritual and stylistic ancestor of hip-hop, Scott-Heron was known for his rhymes against American hypocrisy and inequality. His most famous song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” from 1971, drew a series of lines between commercialism and real social change (“The revolution will not get better with Coke / The revolution will not fight germs that can cause bad breath / The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat. ”)

“Whitey on the Moon” arrived a year earlier, in February 1970, less than a year after the moon landing. Scott-Heron wasn’t the only one protesting the space race. In his 2003 article “Public opinion polls and perceptions of US human spaceflight,” Roger D. Launius writes: “Throughout the 1960s, a majority of Americans did not think Apollo was worth the cost, except of a poll taken at the time of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969. And throughout the decade, 45 to 60 percent of Americans thought the government was spending too much on space.

It was also the time of the Kerner Commission, convened to examine the urban uprisings that swept through the country in the 1960s; and the Moynihan Report, a study of African American families. But Scott-Heron did not need such official accounts. He was at the forefront of the country’s racial and economic inequalities. While the United States spent some $ 28 billion (or $ 288 billion after adjusting for inflation) to reach the moon, poverty was rife on Earth.

Or, as Scott-Heron put it to a throbbing bongo beat, “It was all that money I made last year (for Whitey on the Moon) / How come he didn’t there is no money here (Hm! Whitey is on the moon). ”

In other parts of the song, Scott-Heron provides close-ups to accompany the big picture, of how a “rat bit my sister Nell” and “I can’t pay a doctor’s bill.” He then links the macro view of the space race to the personal view: “In ten years, I’ll still pay. Here, Scott-Heron evokes images straight out of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”, with his vision of Chicago’s black belt, where rodents are tangible messengers of poverty. It should be noted that Scott-Heron was hardly the only black person to protest Apollo 11. Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, called the moon landing ” inhuman priority “.

The song continues to resonate across pop culture. In the 2018 film “First Man,” a rather melancholy drama about Neil Armstrong, Leon Bridges of Fort Worth briefly appears as Scott-Heron, playing “Whitey” against the backdrop of an anti-NASA protest. More recently, the since-canceled black sci-fi drama “Lovecraft Country” used the song for both an episode title and musical backing and commentary on a mystical brand of white power.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, global warming portends all kinds of disasters, we can’t quite get COVID under control, race relations are crumbling and democracy is under attack. Branson and Bezos know this, even in their spaced out state. Musk, in his quest to colonize Mars, seems too ready to spend his money, cut his losses, and leave all of these problems behind.

Of course, space flights have brought many benefits to mankind, but it is difficult to reconcile that with vain tourism. To paraphrase Scott-Heron, there is a lot of wrong here. Why so eager to fly up there?

Vognar is a freelance writer in Houston.


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