BAN #223: Thoughts on the protests, the SpaceX launch, and the state of America

1 June 2020   Issue #223

[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]


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Social justice

If we don’t do our part, who will?

There is so, so much to say. It’s hard to know where to start, where to go, how to do anything. What to write.

My thoughts have been running in circles a lot, and trying to write about my overall feelings on the situation in America right now is like trying to jump on a panicking bear.

So instead, let me drill down a bit and focus on one specific thing. It’s centered on my own interests, because those are easiest to grasp right now. Don’t think there isn’t a lot more going on, things besides this of great concern to me; this is just one that I can get something of a handle on enough to write about. Perhaps it overlaps with your own interests, too.

[Credit: Black Lives Matter]

This week has been so difficult for so many. As a white man of middle class origin from a very nearly entirely white area (northern Virginia), it is literally impossible for me to truly understand what Black people have gone through in this country. I have read about it, I have wept about it, and I have been appalled about it, but I have not experienced it.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t hurt for what I see, my heart isn’t breaking from what I see. These things are true, too.

It comes after so much pain and suffering from the pandemic, too (and some of that racially based as well). On top of that is the right-wing disinformation coming straight from the President and on down. Along with most everyone else I’ve watched in stunned disbelief as people — white people, by and large — ignore the advice of scientists and doctors, whine about wearing masks, appear in large groups, and flaunt reality.

These are related. As my friend Dylan Park tweeted:

That cartoon, by Nick Anderson, boils down one of the biggest issues we have: Whites and Blacks live in two different Americas. This is neither a new idea nor a particularly bold one; it’s just the obvious truth. But the cartoon frames it in perspective of white privilege that stings deeply, all the more because it’s absolutely dead-on target.

I didn’t see the cartoon until Sunday, but something very much like it was on my mind all day Saturday as NASA and SpaceX prepared to, and then successfully did launch the Falcon 9 rocket with two astronauts onboard into orbit.

Mind you: This is a stunning achievement, never before done. A commercial rocket and capsule lofted humans into orbit, a first, an event put into even starker contrast due to the lengthy nine-year gap in America’s ability to do it.

[The Crew Dragon docked to the International Space Station on 31 May, 2020 after the successful launch of the Demo-2 mission. Credit: NASA]

I have been waiting the better part of a decade to see this happen, to watch it happen, to see what I think may be the first steps in opening space travel to a much broader part of the population, steps that will make it far easier to explore the Universe astronomically than we ever have before.

But in reality, watching it did not bring that same breathless anticipation I have had at previous launches, and that is due in large part to events around the country. Seeing peacefully protesting Black people tear-gassed and maced and run over and shot by police literally at the same time two white men were being launched into space by a white billionaire… well. The contrast wasn’t terribly subtle.

[Frame from a video that clearly and unequivocally shows a police officer throwing the “white power” hand gesture. From Kirk Acevedo’s Twitter feed.]

And then it got worse.

After the launch, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made a statement about it. Much of it was fine, but then he pivoted and started praising Trump for the launch. Saying this launch was due to Trump’s efforts was nonsensical and galling. If anyone should be praised it’s President Obama, who oversaw the creation of the Commercial Crew effort. But then Bridenstine said that Trump’s 2024 deadline to put people on the Moon was a “big risk” for the President, and that’s when I had to turn off the stream. I was too nauseated to continue watching.

A risk for Trump? While at the exact same moment two men still had their asses strapped to a rocket and were riding it into space for the first time? And when Trump’s 2024 deadline is too rushed, too risky, with no need and no basis in reality, and will put dozens of astronauts and perhaps NASA’s future at real risk?

I was extremely skeptical of Bridenstine when he took over as NASA chief, appointed by Trump. He had made science denial overtures before, and so my criticism was warranted. But over the past couple of years I’ve warmed to him, and was happy to see him pushing for this new flight.

But then those sycophantic statements about Trump… they soured the event for me considerably. Look, it’s still a big achievement. Huge. But in my mind it was deeply stained by the partisan Dear Leader speech Bridenstine made. That kind of groveling is de rigueur these days for Republicans at any political event, but to see it here was especially grotesque.

But then, somehow, it got even worse. Minutes later, Trump made a statement about the launch but made sure he denounced “leftists” and anti-facism, just standing there and lying as he always does (including saying Obama canceled the Shuttle program, when it was Bush who did that), in this instance to purposefully, intentionally enflame the already raw and bleeding racial wound this country is suffering.

I couldn’t bear it. For me, the event was… well, not ruined, exactly, but certainly seriously befouled.

It was for many others; I tweeted my feelings, and a lot of folks responded similarly.

I did hear that both Bridenstine and Trump said this launch will unite Americans, and I imagine they were harking back to 1968, when America was at a similar point in history, with racial unrest and riots, racist brutality laid bare for all to see, and the future of the country in doubt. At that time, though, Apollo 8 rounded the Moon, and humans saw the Earth rise over the barren landscape for the first time. In the miniseries “From the Earth to the Moon”, the Apollo 8 episode ends with a NASA official reading a letter written by an American citizen, saying “You saved 1968.”

That really struck me when I saw it, but now I see it with a somewhat more jaundiced eye. Loren Grush, a science reporter, stated it well:

That mirrored my thinking very closely:

The contrast of the sleek, shiny launch with the shaky, low-res video of police attacking innocent American citizens protesting over George Floyd’s death — and the deaths of so many others — couldn’t have been higher.

I still love that we reach for the stars, and I still think that can be a noble human goal. I also think we can both work on fixing our problems here on Earth as well as keep one eye on the heavens. We are capable of doing two (and many more) things at once.

But until things change — from the top on down, from Trump to the Senate to the white supremacists to many of the individuals in the police forces around the country — that noble goal will always have some tarnish on it. 

Can we totally end racism? I don’t know; I’m neither an anthropologist nor a historian. But it seems unlikely. I’m not sure that should even be the proximate goal, though; perhaps a more achievable goal is to get people to see each other as people. Once that bridge to empathy is in place, perhaps the better angels of our nature will follow and we won’t need to eliminate racism. It’ll wither away as a byproduct, perhaps to the point where it doesn’t rule our actions any more.

Is even that possible? Maybe. Today, no. Tomorrow, no. In November? Yeah. That’ll help. But it won’t solve everything. We have to keep trying, keep listening, especially to those who are directly affected by this, and amplify their voices.

And we have to keep hoping. That can be hard, but it’s something we must do.

Mind you, though: Without action, hope is just wishful thinking.

Hope, yes. But do something, too.

[Drawing by my dear friend SurlyAmy. She has it for sale on RedBubble.]



Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[Westerlund-2 is a huge young star cluster, and Hubble observations show stars near the center don’t make planets. From Friday’s post. Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team ]

Monday 11 May, 2020: How did this galaxy emerge from the chaos just 1.5 billion years after the big Bang?

Tuesday 12 May, 2020: One ring (galaxy) to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

Wednesday 12 May, 2020: What you need to know about today's NASA/SpaceX crewed launch

Thursday 13 May, 2020: Are rivers of liquid methane washing away craters on Saturn’s moon Titan?

Friday 14 May, 2020: Want to make planets? Stay away from monster stars.


Et alia

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