While NYC sanitation infrastructure failed to maintain living conditions and tenants struggled to pay $50 a week, NASA spent $20 billion on Project Apollo alone in an unprecedented and myopic spending frenzy to place a man on the moon. And the government’s prodigious spending reached far beyond the construction of spacecraft. NASA sponsored the Sustaining University Program that funneled $100 million into graduate training for over 5,000 science and engineering students and poured $32 million into university laboratory construction. Meanwhile, private companies like Boeing, IBM, and Douglas Aircraft Corporation reaped huge financial benefits as three of the largest among the 500 private contractors hired to construct parts for the Apollo missions.
When Scott-Heron disparaged “whitey” for taking a trip to the moon, he did not mean to single out Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin. Instead, he directed his criticism to the economic boost delivered to white America through government funding of the space program. These expenditures paid for educations given to predominantly white engineers who bought homes in predominantly white suburbs.
In this regard, the environmental commentary offered in “Whitey on the Moon” has as much to say about manicured suburban lawns as the urban pollution that marred Harlem’s cityscape.
Scott-Heron’s simple arithmetic reminds us that the funds not spent on improving the lives of America’s black urban citizens went somewhere. They went to the engineers and contractors tasked with beating the Soviet Union to the moon.
When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planted the United States flag in the lunar dust on July 20, 1969, 24 million Americans lived below the poverty line. Granted, this statistic represented a new low compared to the previous decade’s numbers. Through a combination of employment and social welfare programs initiated by the Johnson administration, the nation’s impoverished populations had experienced a general improvement in living conditions. Regardless of these advances, the country’s most vulnerable citizens continued to suffer.
As recent books, films and Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremonies remind us, black and white women like Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, and Margaret H. Hamilton can claim much of the honor for the singular achievement of placing men on the moon. But these tales of individual accomplishment should not divert attention from the structural racism and inequality that “Whitey on the Moon” illuminates. While the urban environments of black America struggled through the 1960s and 1970s, other communities prospered. Scott-Heron helped connect those stories with precision, humor, and an enduring eloquence that calls the bluff of a nation’s skewed economic priorities.