More than a million people gathered along Florida’s Space Coast to watch the Apollo 11 lift off from Launchpad 39A on the sunny afternoon of July 16, 1969. The event was the culmination of a technological race started by President John F. Kennedy in 1963 with the goal of beating the Soviet Union to the moon.
But not everyone was cheering that summer day.
A group of 500 mostly African American protesters led by civil rights leader Ralph Abernathy arrived outside the gates of the Kennedy Space Center a few days before the launch. They brought with them two mules and a wooden wagon to illustrate the contrast between the gleaming white Saturn V rocket and families who couldn’t afford food or a decent place to live.
Abernathy was one of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s closest aides. After King’s assassination in April 1968, Abernathy led the Poor People’s March on Washington that summer. A year later, as NASA prepared to launch Apollo 11, the Alabama preacher led a group of mostly Black Americans to show NASA and the assembled media that all was not well in America’s cities.
“There was a debate about what America was at the time,” says Neil Maher, author of 2017’s Apollo in the Age of Aquarius, and a professor of history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Maher says the Apollo space program divided Americans among supporters who thought it would energize a country that had gotten lost, and those who believed that it represented a huge waste of money that instead should go to solving societal problems.
“Was it a country to spend $20 billion to land two men on a dead rock in space or try to solve some of the problems closer to home on Earth?” Maher says. “A lot of grass roots movements argued to use the [NASA] money to solve problems here.”
The protest began peacefully with Abernathy and the others gathered in front of the NASA gates for a candlelight vigil on the evening of July 14 followed by a march on July 15. As NASA administrator Thomas Paine came out to the NASA perimeter under a lightly falling rain to meet Abernathy and the others in an open field, the group began singing “We Shall Overcome” and media crews recorded the event. Protesters carried signs reading “$12 a day to feed an astronaut, we could feed a child for $8.”
The two men—Paine the Stanford-educated engineer, and Abernathy the Alabama-born Baptist preacher (who also earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics)—talked for a while. Paine later recorded his account:
“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 told Paine that he had three requests for NASA, that 10 families of his group be allowed to view the launch, that NASA “support the movement to combat the nation’s poverty, hunger and other social problems,” and that NASA technical people work “to tackle the problem of hunger.”
“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 while holding a microphone, “then we would not push that button.”
Paine added that he hoped Abernathy 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.”
The meeting ended and the two men shook hands. Paine offered tickets to Abernathy’s group for the VIP viewing area to watch the moonshot on the following day. Abernathy then prayed for the safety of the astronauts and said he was as proud as anyone at the accomplishment.
"On the eve of man's noblest venture, I am profoundly moved by the nation's achievements in space and the heroism of the three men embarking for the moon,” he said, according to a UPI report. But, he added, "What we can do for space and exploration we demand that we do for starving people."
“The Abernathy protest was an example that Apollo did not happen in bubble,” said Teasel Muir-Harmony, author of Apollo to the Moon: A History in 50 Objects, and curator of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “It was very connected to everything else that was going on in the country.”
In the months and years that followed the meeting, NASA tried to make good on the promises Paine made that day at Cape Canaveral. NASA engineers took sensors initially used to detect contaminants in space capsules and converted them to measure urban air pollution. Another project took spacecraft insulation and made new kinds of walls and windows for public housing. But Maher says the efforts didn’t amount to much.
“It was more of an advertising effort,” he said.
The Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969, was for many people the apogee of NASA’s popular support. A year after the Apollo 11, Gil Scott-Heron released a spoken-word critique of the space missions “Whitey on the Moon” (a song featured in the 2018 film First Man.) And, in the months and years following Apollo 11, public and political support for space exploration waned. The nation’s focus had shifted to the Vietnam War, campus protests and movements focused on civil rights, women’s rights and the environment.
By 1970, NASA officials scrubbed the final three moon landings and President Richard Nixon rejected a new NASA recommendation to build a station on the moon that could be used as a base for exploration of Mars.
“We must build on the successes of the past, always reaching out for new achievements,” Nixon said on March 7, 1970. “But we must also recognize that many critical problems here on this planet make high priority demands on our attention and our resources.”
The last astronaut to walk on the moon left in December 1972.