The first Black astronaut to orbit the moon is making the space race about race.
Victor Glover was named as the pilot of next year’s Artemis II mission to the moon; the first person of color to fly a mission to the moon. But in an interview with Axios Monday, Glover said that the United States is in a similar place as it was when the Apollo program was launched. To illustrate his perspective, he uses the 1970 poem “Whitey on the Moon.”
“Honestly, I started listening to [the poem] in the car to talk with my colleagues about it,” Glover told Axios. “I live in the America that sent me to space, told my grandfather he couldn’t fly during the Korean conflict when he was enlisted, but he got to sit and watch me fly. We live in a very complicated country.”
“Whitey on the Moon” was written by jazz musician Gil Scott-Heron in 1970, and a performance of it was released on his album Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. In it, Scott-Heron complains about the money being spent on the Apollo program, while black Americans struggle with debt, poverty, and high taxes. The lyrics (in part) are as follows:
A rat done bit my sister Nell.(with Whitey on the moon) 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. (while Whitey’s on the moon) …Taxes takin’ my whole damn check, Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, The price of food is goin’ up, An’ as if all that s*** wasn’t enough …Was all that money I made las’ year(for Whitey on the moon?) How come there ain’t no money here? (Hm! Whitey’s on the moon) Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill (of Whitey on the moon) I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills, Airmail special (to Whitey on the moon)
In the 1960s and 70s, most Americans were skeptical of the space program, saying that the U.S. was spending too much on spaceflight, according to a 2012 report from The Atlantic. Black activists especially, Scott-Heron among them, criticized the program for wasting money that could have gone to help struggling poor blacks.
Glover told Axios that the situation is in much the same place today in regards to skeptics. “Where we were in 1968, when humans first set out on this voyage, our country is in a very similar place now,” he said. “And it’s important to recognize and respect those skeptics.”
Glover himself spoke out on politics during the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020. He told the outlet that NASA understood his identity when he was hired. “When I came to NASA, you know, they said, ‘Hey, we hired you because of who you are,'” he said. “OK. Cool. You get all of it.”
Glover was named pilot of Artemis II, the first manned mission to the moon in nearly 50 years, on April 3. “The Artemis II crew represents thousands of people working tirelessly to bring us to the stars,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “This is their crew, this is our crew, this is humanity’s crew. NASA astronauts Reid Wiseman, Victor Glover, and Christina Hammock Koch, and CSA astronaut Jeremy Hansen, each has their own story, but, together, they represent our creed: E pluribus unum – out of many, one. Together, we are ushering in a new era of exploration for a new generation of star sailors and dreamers – the Artemis Generation.”