One would have thought that the hoary old debate of space exploration vs. social programs would have been left on the ash heap of history. However, a recent article in Aeon, “Whitey on Mars” brings the race baiting and poverty pimping attack on space exploration to the age of commercial space and entrepreneurial buccaneers like Elon Musk. The article is a full-throated attack on Musk’s dream of building colonies on Mars. Fortunately, the attack is answered with great eloquence by Earle Kyle, one of the few African American engineers to work on the Apollo program.

Whitey on Mars? Really?

The attack on Musk follows some familiar ground and in fact invokes the debates that occurred during the Apollo program. When the Reverend Ralph Abernathy led a protest to the launch of Apollo 11 and the singer Gil Scott-Heron composed a racist screed against space exploration, “Whitey on the Moon.” Basically, the argument is that with the problems of poverty, social injustice, and environmental degradation ravaging the Earth, any money spent settling Mars consists of funds wasted. The accusation is the Blood Libel of the space age.

The twist is that the authors of the article would stop even private ventures toward that end by people like Elon Musk. They linger lovingly over the fact that Musk was born as a privileged white in South Africa but pass over the other fact that he left that country out of disgust over the racist, apartheid regime that existed at the time.

The piece is a not too subtle ad hominem attack on Musk, implying that he is motivated by racism in his desire to build a city on Mars.

History challenged screed against space exploration

The article is extremely history challenged when it states, “But neither Abernathy’s protest nor Scott-Heron’s anthem moved the country’s political priorities from space exploration to the provision of housing or health care.” In fact, that statement is false on its face.

The Apollo program was curtailed with the last three moon missions cancelled and dreams of lunar bases, and Mars expeditions deferred indefinitely. Government funds were poured into social programs, but with the effect of making the ills, they were designed to address worse.

An African American Apollo-era engineer responds

Earle Kyle hastens to establish his moral authority as an African American engineer who worked on the Apollo program.

Making him as much a “hidden figure” as the ladies whose lives were depicted in the recent movie by the same name. He not only lauded the power of space projects, whether it was Apollo or Musk’s Mars colony dream, to inspire hope. He also noted as many have before, how the technology and skills developed to explore space have been used to address problems on Earth, citing several examples he is personally familiar with. In short, Kyle offers as eloquent a refutation of the social programs vs. space exploration argument as has ever been written.