Space Is Not Black

Space Is Not Black

Days before the Apollo 11 launch in 1969, The Nation lamented a government that spent freely on white astronauts, engineers, and contractors, but could not find jobs at home for its black population.


This report appeared in the June 30, 1969, issue of The Nation.

I’m pushing space as hard as I can, but I seem to be the only one here who cares,” moaned an inner-city junior high schoolteacher. “What do you mean ‘who cares’!” snapped a colleague. “Every time one of those things blasts off I can’t think of anything except all that money we need here on earth.’’

The Rev. David Eaton, pastor of Washington, D.C.’s largest inner-city Unitarian church, spoke as follows to a white suburban audience filled with space and electronic experts: “The $23 billion we’ve spent going to the moon has stolen money the black man needs for job retraining and schools.” Lamont Johnson of Baltimore, a chief marshal at last year’s Resurrection City, summed it up: “There just ain’t nothin’ in it for us.” In a time when NASA needs all the support it can get, both poor and well-situated Negroes are voting “no confidence.”

This black view of space is becoming more apparent. During the Apollo 10 moon orbit, a civil rights group picketed the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston, demanding that money be switched from bases on the moon to housing on the earth. The Afro-American continues its wry comments about a country that can send men to the moon but cannot find jobs at home for its black population.

Even white political leaders are picking up the theme. Sen. Edward Kennedy has urged in several campus speeches that space money be diverted to pressing domestic problems. Rep. William F. Ryan form New York City’s 20th District, put it more strongly: “For years we’ve been blindly rubber-stamping space programs and it’s hurt the poor man two ways. First of all it’s taken money away he’s needed for better schools, housing, things like that. Worse yet, it hasn’t given him anything in tertian in the way of a better job.”

Those concerned with the unemployment and under-employment of Negroes are disillusioned with more than NASA. They are upset that the entire system spends millions on designs by white engineers, drawn up in buildings built by white contractors, where the offices are full of white secretaries. They say the problem of discrimination goes all the way from the electrical unions that install wiring for the computers to paper companies that supply everything from printout forms to towels in the rest-room.

It is instructive to watch an Apollo launch on a black man’s television set. The astronauts are white; the doctors interviewed are white; the engineers and contractors who describe the $135 million space capsule and the commentator who interviews them are white. For ten days white flight controllers and scientists tell how black is outer space while teenagers in the living room snort. When the capsule finally splashes down, children make a game of trying to find a few black faces in the welcoming crew on the carrier deck.

The Air Force had a Negro astronaut—Maj. Robert H. Lawrence, Jr.—who was killed in an F-104 crash; few Negro children have ever heard of him. The principal of an adult education class observed: “Who cares if we once had 1.6 per cent of the astronauts? We have 99.9 per cent of the janitors.”

Today there is not one Negro among NASA’s fifty-three astronauts, or the Air Force’s fourteen. Government officials say no qualified Negroes are available. Equal opportunity experts say that this is the result of Jim Crow schooling and the residual discrimination in the armed forces when it comes to selecting black men for commissions.

Of more concern to the Negro community, however, is the lack of black personnel in middle management and technical jobs. “Space was a wide open field when it started,” William Beck, science teacher in a well-kept, suburban Negro community, points out. “Nobody knew anything. And look at the kinds of jobs that were created—communications, electronics, many of them not even for college graduates. Black kids could have learned just as white kids… but where are they?”

Negro computer programmers, technicians and engineers are lightly sprinkled throughout the operation, the ranking black employed in NASA being Bill Wallace, a deputy Apollo launch operations manager. Government officials say more Negroes would be used if more qualified applicants could be found. Civil rights groups respond with the survey made by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in January 1968. At hearings in New York City they examined employment records of 100 major companies. Their targets had New York headquarters were not “Southern firms”; many were major aerospace contractors. The average Negro employment rate was 2.6 per cent, heavily concentrated in lower-level jobs.

Testifying before the Ad Hoc Hearings on Discrimination in Employment, called by Congressman Ryan in December 1968, Herbert Hill, national labor director of the NAACP, called space discrimination part of a total Defense Department-federal government contract problem. “There has been equal opportunity legislation since Roosevelt’s Executive Order No. 8802 in 1941. On March 6, 1961, President Kennedy issued a directive with clear contract cancellation terms written in. Yet there has never been one contract cancellation because of job discrimination… even when investigations have shown discrimination exists… and when discrimination has been proven in the courts.”

The rising anti-discrimination pressure has been felt by major space firms. After an Air Force review in 1964-65 IBM began a costly program to hunt out and hire black engineers and technicians. The company even prepared a dramatic series of four-color ads to tell the black community that IBM offered equal opportunity. The ads ran in Time and Fortune and were not seen by most black young people who were reading Jet.

The closest the Negro has come to the moon is Philadelphia’s Project Aerospace. General Electric has set this up in cooperation with the Rev. Leon Sullivan’s total job training program. Since many space jobs require manual dexterity, not faultless grammar, ghetto men and women have been most successfully trained for jobs at GE’s Valley Forge facility. The GE men who went with the project call the ghetto workers reliable, less prone to turnover, some of the best on the line.

The breakthrough is late, however. John Glenn got into orbit in 1962; NASA’s effort to develop minority talent is still being tested on the launch pad. It is a question whether they can get it off the ground before Congress and the people at large join the well-dressed Negro woman whose sign read: “Bring our tax dollar down to earth. We need it here.”

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