How the late John Lewis saved NASA's International Space Station from cancellation

How the late John Lewis saved NASA's International Space Station from cancellation
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The late Rep. John LewisJohn LewisMaxine Waters says Biden 'can't go home without a Black woman being VP' Georgia school lifts suspension of student who posted photos of crowded hall We must protect the right to vote, even today   MORE (D-Ga.) is rightly considered a giant of the civil rights movement. The incident on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in which state troopers charged a group of peaceful protestors led by Lewis in 1965 and beat them mercilessly, shocked the conscience of the nation and turned many to support the cause of civil rights.

However, Lewis, less than 30 years after having his skull fractured by a state trooper’s baton, performed another service to the country he loved and strove to make better when he used his vote in Congress to save the International Space Station from cancelation.

In 1993, after a previous attempt to kill the space station had failed, the project, which was revamped by the Clinton administration, suffered a near-death experience. Space Policy Online explains what happened.

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Then-Rep. Tim Roener (D-Ind.) tried to kill the ISS program with an amendment to the FY 1994 NASA Authorization Act, but his measure lost, thanks to Rep. Lewis, who cast the deciding vote to keep it alive. 

The vote was altogether remarkable, considering that the relationship between the space program and the African American community has been traditionally fraught. The Apollo 11 launch to the moon was the scene of a civil rights protest led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, who, like Lewis, was an aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The African American poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron composed a song called “Whitey on the Moon” that contrasted the glories of the Apollo moonwalks to the squalor that many African Americans endured at the time.

It is likely, by the way, that neither gentleman had ever heard of the group of African American women who worked as “computers” for NASA and were crucial in the early space program and the moon landing, known collectively as the “Hidden Figures.” The name of one of them, Mary Jackson, the first African American woman engineer to work for the space agency, now adorns NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

NASA, belatedly realizing that it had a race problem, hired African American actress Nichelle Nichols, who had played Lt. Uhura on the original “Star Trek,” to appear in a series of PSAs reaching out to Black Americans with the message that America’s space program was their space program too and was open for job applications from people of all races. Even Dr. King praised Nichols for her portrayal of a Black woman in a position of responsibility in the fictional future, exploring space through Starfleet, serving as a role model.

Lewis showed little or no interest in space policy before or after his critical vote. The words attributed to him in the Space Policy Online piece were actually from Rep. Tom Lewis (R-Fla.). Did John Lewis suddenly have an epiphany about the benefits of an orbiting space lab? Or was the motivation more partisan? The space station was conceived by President Ronald Reagan, and subsequently supported by President George W. Bush, both Republicans. But by 1993, the ISS had become President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonGiuliani says Black Lives Matter is 'domestic terrorist' group We have the resources to get through this crisis, only stupidity is holding us back Biden needs to bring religious Americans into the Democratic fold MORE’s project. Perhaps all Lewis was exercising was party loyalty.

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Regardless of the motives, the effect of Lewis’s vote cannot be overstated. Had the vote gone the other way, very likely there would be no space laboratory orbiting the Earth, churning out scientific discoveries and technological innovations. There would be no destination for a new generation of commercial spacecraft, including the SpaceX Crew Dragon, which recently launched two astronauts to the ISS. Human spaceflight in America would likely have ended when the shuttle program died.

NASA is now a much more diverse organization than it was in the 1960s. African Americans now regularly fly in space and hold important positions at NASA. One, Charles Bolden, was both an astronaut and NASA administrator during the Obama presidency. It is that modern, more diverse space agency that is preparing to embark on its most ambitious and expensive mission since the Apollo program, to go back to the moon and on to Mars. It wants to land the first woman and the next man on the lunar surface by 2024. Lewis, by saving the space station and thus human spaceflight in America, in his own way, helped to make that new effort possible.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues