“First, it was shock,” says Hampton, who works in accounting. “And then fear of ‘What’s happening to my eye right now? Am I going to be able to open it again?’ I didn’t feel like the guy had any reason to do that, other than he was angry.”
In cities across the country, crowds had gathered to protest state violence against black Americans days after a Minneapolis man named George Floyd died after spending nearly nine minutes pinned to the pavement under a police officer’s knee.
And miles above the planet, in a capsule 13 feet in diameter, Behnken was weightless. He spun around and showed a floating toy dinosaur that he’d brought along at the request of his sons. “We’d like to thank the American people for the opportunity today,” Behnken said in video beamed back to Earth. “And we’re really proud of the entire team that was able to accomplish human spaceflight again from the Florida coast. Just a wonderful experience.”
Over the weekend America watched a billionaire’s private company, under a $2.6 billion government contract, deliver two men into orbit with speed and elegance, and then watched its cities spasm with anger and chaos. The launch was a triumph of ingenuity and collaboration; the widespread unrest was the product of a systems failure: The recent deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor (shot by police in her Louisville home) and Ahmaud Arbery (hunted down by vigilantes in Georgia) caused the social fabric, threaded by generations of racism and frayed by the coronavirus pandemic, to catch fire and explode.
The SpaceX rocket, meanwhile, took off from Cape Canaveral in a heave of fire and exhaust. Fort Lauderdale resident Rosie Nwanganga had hopped in a friend’s car Saturday afternoon to drive to Cocoa Beach. After months of quarantine, it was blissful to be on a towel by the water, among smiling and excited humans, waiting for the launch. Through phones and radios, everyone could hear the technical play-by-play.
At T-minus 1:48, the crowd heard that Stage 2 of the liquid-oxygen load was complete.
At T-minus 0:54, the crowd heard that the flight termination system was armed.
At T-minus 0:35, the crowd heard astronaut Hurley say, “Let’s light this candle.”
And then the Falcon 9 soared like a shooting star on a return trip. Nwanganga felt the vibration in her rib cage. Looking up, she felt exhilaration.
Later, looking down at images and video on social media, she felt exhaustion.
“We’re so smart but we’re so behind,” says Nwanganga, 27. “People are watching all over the world. They’re seeing something positive, with this launch, but they’re also watching us protest and have to burn places down to get attention. The United States has aced space travel but has failed in equality, and that’s sad.”
At the launch, phones were angled up in wonder. Elsewhere, phones were pointed outward in solidarity and suspicion. Along the barricades at Baltimore’s City Hall, a chef named Denicia Baker, 26, was cleaning up bottles thrown by troublemaking white people when, according to Baker, two cops hit her with a shield and baton.
“We’re doing everything we’re supposed to be doing,” she says. “We’re policing ourselves. We’ve policed the agitators. It was two black men that hit me. It’s infuriating because no matter what we do, we’re not being treated like humans. It was mind-boggling, it was traumatizing, it was frustrating — especially because I used to be in the military. They don’t see that. They see my skin color and automatically meet me with brute force.”
On a street in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, after one officer said “Light ’em up,” law enforcement shot projectiles at onlookers watching from their own porch. In Brooklyn, an NYPD squad car accelerated into protesters. Cars burned in Cleveland. City Hall burned in Nashville. In the White House, the president wailed on Twitter about “FAKE NEWS!” and “LAW & ORDER!” but gave no formal address to the nation. The country seemed incapable of the care and precision that delivers people to orbit.
At her home in Charlotte, former astronaut Joan Higginbotham started watching the launch preparations at T-minus 20:00. She remembered the fat gloves and thousands of switches on the space shuttle Discovery, whose vintage bulk she rode into orbit in 2006 for a mission just shy of 13 days, as she looked at footage of the clean blue touch screens in the sleek SpaceX capsule. This was progress.
Higginbotham was thrilled by the exquisite liftoff from American soil. But the television in her home had been turned off most of last week. She had seen the video of George Floyd’s last moments too many times. Floyd had complained he couldn’t breathe and lay motionless on the ground for almost two minutes before the officer removed his knee. This was the opposite of progress.
“For me, as an African American woman, it is just extremely exhausting and exasperating and it sucks the life out of me when things like this continue to happen in this day and age,” Higginbotham says.
Ten miles away from Higginbotham that same afternoon, in downtown Charlotte, three black men of different generations converged on an overpass of Interstate 277, above East 4th Street.
“I’m tired of this s---!” said a 45-year-old man in a white tank top. “We’ve been standing around, as the older ones, taking all this bulls---! . . . Ain’t nobody coming to protect us!”
A 31-year-old man named Curtis Hayes Jr. brought over a 16-year-old protester, to make a point. “He’s 16!” Hayes shouted at the older man.
“And they going to kill him next week,” the older man said. “At this point I’m ready to die for what’s going on!”
Hayes, tears streaming down his face, pivoted to the 16-year-old, gripped his rib cage, and bellowed: “Let me tell you something. What you see right now is gonna happen 10 years from now. And at 26, you gonna be doing the same thing I’m doing! You understand that! Ten years! You’re gonna be right here, too! So what I need y’all to do right now, at 16, is come up with a better way. Because how we doing it — it ain’t working. He angry at 46. I’m angry at 31. You angry at 16. You understand me?”
“Yes, sir, I do,” the teenager said.
“Putting yourself in harm’s way,” Hayes said, “is not the way!”
The interaction was recorded and viewed tens of millions of times on Twitter and Facebook. Reached by phone Sunday afternoon, shortly after the astronauts docked with the International Space Station, Hayes explained how black people are done with waiting for progress.
“I have such anger in my heart, but people of your race do not understand the hurt beneath it — they only see the anger,” says Hayes, an entrepreneur. “I ask for people to see the hurt. Hurt comes before anger. And my question is ‘How much do you have to see, and how much do you have to experience, to see the hurt before the rage and the anger? . . . The world better hurry up, because right now everybody is still marching for peace, and marching for equality. But soon people will be marching in rage and revenge. And that’s when we’ll have a problem.”
There was looting in Philadelphia and Santa Monica. Police pepper-sprayed and Tasered and flash-bombed journalists and nonviolent protesters. In Atlanta, businesses shuttered by the pandemic were totaled by vandalism. There were also moments when the gravity of the situation gave way. In Flint, Mich., a county sheriff marched with protesters. In Baltimore, at the behest of protesters, a police lieutenant recited the names of people killed by police. In D.C. and El Paso, officers took a knee to show respect to protesters.
From his home in Fairfax, Va., astrophysicist Hakeem Oluseyi considered the video of George Floyd’s death, the footage of SpaceX’s launch, the images of peaceful protests joined by people of all races and even police officers. Growing up in the Deep South, Oluseyi was face down on the pavement many times. People in Athens, Ga., where he was a young researcher, hurled both epithets and projectiles at him.
You can look at the current unrest and see deterioration, he says. Or you can look at it and see progress in the scale and diversity of the activism. You can look at launching two men into lower orbit as minuscule on the scale of the universe, or majestic on the scale of humanity.
“When you’re trained in physics it gives you perspective,” Oluseyi says. “You can shrink yourself down and you can make yourself a giant. I see this feeble species trying to go to space, and on a grand scale you ain’t going nowhere. But being trapped in this gravity, and the amount of energy and science it takes to make a launch happen — it’s almost miraculous. The fact that so many people, beyond the victimized community, would join in the protests — it feels like others are feeling the pain in ways they haven’t before.”
Sunday night, with five humans now on the International Space Station, the mayor of St. Paul, Minn., was at his emergency operations center. Melvin Carter (D) was tired, anxious, heartbroken. He was seeing an overlap between the rage from police brutality and the fear triggered by the pandemic. Systems that are supposed to protect and nurture are instead harming and exploiting: law enforcement, the health-care system, the economy. And he sees an opportunity to build something new.
“Every generation has moments that our children will call us to account for,” Carter says. “And for our parents and grandparents, we want to know where they were during Freedom Summer, or what they did after Martin Luther King was killed, or ‘Did you answer the call after Pearl Harbor?’ And I firmly believe — and I believed it before last week — that this is a moment in history that our children will call us to account for.”
How might a spell in space change one’s perspective on this mess? Fourteen years ago Higginbotham had a view of the Earth from 250 miles up. It wasn’t the blue-marble view that the Apollo crew had, from a greater distance, but her vantage point dramatized the thin blue line of Earth’s atmosphere. Almost nothing separates life from the void. But that almost-nothing is everything.
“We had a mini United Nations aboard the shuttle and space station,” Higginbotham says. “If we could get along and come together for a common good on this tin can of a spacecraft, then how come on Earth — where there’s so much more space — we can’t have that same type of unification and commonality and humanity?”