In 1969, three of the people who were an essential part of Neil Armstrong taking “a giant leap for mankind”, each working at the cutting edge of mathematics and astrophysics, were not allowed to eat, study or even use the same bathroom as their white peers. The seminal contribution of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson — among several other African-Americans — to the Apollo 11 mission was little known until the 2016 book, Hidden Figures, brought it to light for the general public. NASA has now renamed the street outside its Washington headquarters Hidden Figures, to honour those that were once treated as second-class citizens even as they literally shot for the moon, and managed to hit the target.
The whitewashing of the role that Black Americans had in the moon-landing and their suffering under segregation only brings to focus the many petty cruelties — the institutionalised inequalities — that have been as much a part of modernity as the great achievements of our times. That one of the great advances in modern science and technology can exist, almost without comment, with as immoral and counter-intuitive a practice as segregation on the basis of skin colour presents a disturbing contradiction.
There is some evidence, though, that things in 2019 have progressed since 1969. While the contradiction between modernity and deeply retrograde systems of discrimination abide, the acknowledgment by the world’s leading space agency of those that helped it become so is a welcome correction. And perhaps a much-needed attempt at expressing contrition. Meanwhile, it appears that the ISRO is unlikely to repeat NASA’s mistakes: Chandrayaan 2, India’s second exploration of the moon, is being headed by two women — Ritu Karidhal and Muthayya Vanitha — and ISRO has been only too keen to publicise their role. As space exploration moves to new horizons, it appears, thankfully, that there are no more hidden figures.