One of the most interesting stories of the Apollo 11 mission in July 1969 is the protest led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, successor to Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He and some 500 other protesters went to the Kennedy Space Center at the time of the Apollo 11 launch to call attention to the plight of the poor of the United States. The protesters held an all night vigil as the countdown proceeded and then made a march with two mule-drawn wagons as a reminder that while the nation spent significant money on the Apollo program poverty ravished many Americans’ lives. As Hosea Williams said at the time, “We do not oppose the Moon shot. Our purpose is to protest America’s inability to choose human priorities.”
This protest pointed up more effectively than almost anything else the confluence of high technology challenges and the more mundane but ever present problems of American society. Abernathy asked to meet with the NASA leadership and the space agency’s administrator, Thomas O. Paine, did so the day before the launch. As he recorded the incident:
We were coatless, standing under a cloudy sky, with distant thunder rumbling, and a very light mist of rain occasionally falling. After a good deal of chanting, oratory and lining up, the group marched slowly toward us, singing “We Shall Overcome.” In the lead were several mules being led by the Rev. Abernathy, Hosea Williams and other leading members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The leaders came up to us and halted, facing Julian [Scheer] and myself, while the remainder of the group walked around and surrounded us….One fifth of the population lacks adequate food, clothing, shelter and medical care, [Rev. Abernathy] said. The money for the space program, he stated, should be spent to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend the sick, and house the shelterless.
Abernathy said that he had three requests for NASA, that ten families of his group be allowed to view the launch, that NASA “support the movement to combat the nation’s poverty, hunger ad other social problems,” and that NASA technical people work “to tackle the problem of hunger.”
Paine responded by inviting Abernathy and a bus load of his supporters to view the Apollo 11 launch from the VIP site with other dignitaries. Paine commented on how hard it was to apply NASA’s scientific and technological knowledge to the problems of society. “I stated that if we could solve the problems of poverty in the United States by not pushing the button to launch men to the moon tomorrow,” Paine said, “then we would not push that button.” He added:
I said that the great technological advances of NASA were child’s play compared to the tremendously difficult human problems with which he and his people were concerned. I said that he should regard the space program, however, as an encouraging demonstration of what the American people could accomplish when they had vision, leadership and adequate resources of competent people and money to overcome obstacles. I said I hoped that he would hitch his wagons to our rocket, using the space program as a spur to the nation to tackle problems boldly in other areas, and using NASA’s space successes as a yardstick by which progress in other areas should be measured. I said that although I could not promise early results, I would certainly do everything in my own personal power to help him in his fight for better conditions for all Americans, and that his request that science and engineering assist in this task was a sound one which, in the long run, would indeed help.
Paine then asked Abernathy, when he held a prayer meeting later that day with his protestors, that they “pray for the safety of our astronauts.” As Paine recalled, “He responded with emotion that they would certainly pray for the safety and success of the astronauts, and that as Americans they were as proud of our space achievements as anybody in the country.”
Paine realized that the social problems of the United States could not be solved entirely by revectoring resources from NASA to other initiatives. He also agreed that the problems of society were much more complex and defied resolution using the tools, knowledge, and resources employed to accomplish Project Apollo. While it might be tempting to generalize from the experience of NASA during the 1960s that its success might be duplicated elsewhere, such was not the case.
As Thomas Murphy once commented: “NASA’s effective implementation of the Apollo mission shows that anything we set our minds to can be done, provided all the conditions are met. Unfortunately, there will be few areas in American life where such will be the case. Nevertheless, Apollo will serve as an everlasting precedent to which optimists will be able to point.” In a manner uniquely ironic, the success of NASA showed how malleable and straightforward technological fixes might be accomplished when applied to technological challenges.