Even after the moon landing, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin found themselves quickly forgottenby Caroline O'Donoghue / September 2, 2020 / Leave a comment
On 30th May, five days after the death of George Floyd, two astronauts were sent to the International Space Station in a mission named “Launch America.” The launch marked the first time since 2011 that astronauts had departed American soil for the International Space Station.
“A rat done bit my sister Nell,” my partner said aloud, while reading a BBC headline about this supposedly historic event. “And Whitey’s on the moon.”
He was quoting a 1970 spoken word poem by the African-American poet and jazz singer Gil Scott-Heron. “Whitey on the Moon” plays like a macabre nursery rhyme, growing more disturbing with each line, and more true. “Her face and arms began to swell (and Whitey’s on the moon) / I can’t pay no doctor bill (but Whitey’s on the moon) / Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still…”
The Space Race of the 1960s shared a timeline with the US’s fight for racial equality—even then, there was criticism over what “race” Americans should be paying attention to. Who benefited from sending “Whitey” to the moon? Who benefits from sending two more white astronauts to the International Space Station, now? “Space travel has inspired Americans, but it has never united them” wrote Marina Koren recently in the Atlantic. “Not in the late ’60s, and certainly not in the present moment.” Koren is right to say it has never united Americans, but funnily enough, it hasn’t always interested them either.
In 1969, an estimated 123m Americans watched the moon landings, some 61 per cent of the population. Internationally, the event was just as captivating. Paris had to rely on extra generators to keep so many televisions firing on throughout the night; West Germany reported a sharp drop in crime while the moonwalk was airing. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins went on a world tour, drawing millions of revellers.
But before long, the vast majority of Americans were unable to remember Neil Armstrong’s name. “Whatever Happened to Neil Whosis?” asked the Chicago Tribune in 1974, in an article that revealed that most Americans could not remember the astronaut’s name. In his 2014 No Requiem for Space Travel, history professor Matthew Tribbe charts…