The civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy called Nasas moonshot an inhuman priority while poor children went hungry
The date was 15 July 1969. As the Saturn V rocket towered over the launchpad, about to send the first men to the moon, two dozen black families from poor parts of the south, accompanied by mules and wagons emblematic of the civil rights movement, marched to the fence of Cape Kennedy in Florida. From a birds eye view, they would have resembled dwarves in the wake of a colossus.
They were led by Ralph Abernathy, successor to the slain Martin Luther King as head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). He carried a sign that said bluntly: $12 a day to feed an astronaut. We could feed a starving child for $8. He told a rally at the site: We may go on from this day to Mars and to Jupiter and even to the heavens beyond, but as long as racism, poverty and hunger and war prevail on the Earth, we as a civilised nation have failed.
The Apollo 11 mission has been hailed as humankinds greatest technological achievement and, after the turmoil of the 1960s, a redemptive moment of national and international unity. Speaking to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the lunar surface in what he described as the most historic telephone call ever made, President Richard Nixon declared: For one priceless moment in the whole history of man, all the people on this Earth are truly one.
Yet it was myth making then and will be again as America commemorates this months 50th anniversary with events, exhibitions and TV specials. The Apollo programme, motivated by the space race against the Soviet Union, cost $25.4bn, the equivalent of $180bn today; only the Vietnam war hit taxpayers harder. While Nasa warned Congress No bucks, no Buck Rogers, polls showed a majority of Americans opposed the moondoggle.
The black press questioned how the price tag could be justified when millions of African Americans were still mired in poverty. Testifying to the US Senate on race and urban poverty in 1966, King had observed in a few years we can be assured that we will set a man on the moon and with an adequate telescope he will be able to see the slums on Earth with their intensified congestion, decay and turbulence.
An inhuman priority
Tom Paine, the administrator of Nasa, walked out to meet the demonstrators. An official Nasa history recalls: Paine stood coatless under a cloudy sky, accompanied only by Nasas press officer, as Abernathy approached with his party, marching slowly and singing We Shall Overcome.