Last weekend, U.S. astronauts traveled into space from American soil for the first time in nine years. The launch had all the makings of a live sporting event. There was the tremendous buildup. The predictions and the analysis. And then once the countdown began, there was the play-by-play. Oh, how I loved the play-by-play. The closest thing to live sports I’ve had recently was watching the exciting conclusion of Turbo, an animated movie in which a snail races in the Indianapolis 500. So I was thrilled to hear the dramatic narration of the Falcon 9 rocket shooting skyward.
For 12 minutes, I stood in front of the TV, arms crossed, stroking my chin in nervous excitement. I yelled at the commentators, I shouted questions they couldn’t hear. And then, the Crew Dragon capsule detached, and Bob and Doug were in orbit. The roar of the engine was replaced by the quiet of space, and I sat down on the couch and exhaled.
Soon after, I’d learn that smoke and tear gas were clouding downtown Seattle. The juxtaposition was impossible to ignore. While some of us had the luxury of time and freedom to watch a hunk of metal hurdle into the atmosphere, streaking away from the planet at more than 17,000 miles per hour, others on Earth were fighting for their lives.
Of course, space launches have a long history of coinciding with unrest. The Apollo 8 mission that circled the moon came at the end of one the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, with the Vietnam War roiling and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. The mission was said to have “saved 1968.”
But this 2020 mission seems an even starker contrast. Protests are rampant, and those marching are appropriately pissed off. It’s not just black Americans who are angry. It’s all Americans. Or, at least, it’s Americans who believe in the welcoming, open-mindedness that this country is supposed to embody. As a result, we’re seeing violence and vandalism alongside peaceful displays. I don’t condone the looting and the arson, but it’s hard not to understand it in some way, even if some of it is coming at the hands of opportunists rather than people truly committed to the cause of ending police brutality and systemic racism. Rage is burning out there, and this manifests in many forms.
There’s another component of the launch that seems hard to ignore. While NASA was a partner in this mission, and the rocket began its journey from the same Florida launchpad that once served the Apollo missions, this was really a private operation. This wasn’t an American rocket. It was SpaceX’s rocket. It belongs to billionaire Elon Musk, and this mission is ultimately about profit for one company. Sure, this flight may pave the way for a Mars mission decades in the future, and that kind of exploration could be on the level of Leif Erikson and Amerigo Vespucci. But for now, SpaceX rockets will be toys for the rich. Private citizens with millions of dollars to spare can perhaps someday soon hitch a ride with SpaceX to the International Space Station. I understand that this tourism will help fund more meaningful work, but let’s face it, are you going into space? Is anyone you know?
So it was hard not to notice the irony. It was hard not to be irate with that irony, really, of seeing Trump and Pence—maskless, with nothing but open sky in front of them—craning their necks to gaze at the heavens. Meanwhile, back on Earth, our cities were burning. And Trump was pouring the rocket fuel.
Prior to the launch, Kathleen, Ria and I got bagels. We decided it’d be fun to watch the “rocket on TV,” as Ria says, with bacon, egg and cheese, and a little schmear. There were two police cars parked out front of the bagel shop, and Ria got all excited. There was no incident—the three female cops simply needed some food. Two of the officers, both women of color, stood outside the store awaiting their orders. Kathleen volunteered to pick up our bagels, so I waited in the car with Manny and Ria. The officers smiled and waved at Ria, much to her glee. They asked Kathleen if the little one would like a sticker, and Kathleen had to restrain herself from saying, “Duh.” Moments later, Kathleen walked a “Jr. Officer” badge over to Ria, who beamed as she pressed it onto her shirt.
Then, clutching paper bags, the officers got back into their cars to continue their shifts.
“Police doodin?” Ria wanted to know. (That’s how she asks "what are they doing?”)
“They got their bagels, and now they are leaving,” I answered. “Just like us.” —Andrew Waite