In the searing heat of a Texas summer in 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of a group of students from Rice University and proclaimed to the world his promise that by the end of the decade the United States would land a man on the moon.
A little more than a year later, Kennedy would be shot dead in Dallas, Texas, never living to see his dream of manned spaceflight become a reality.
After Kennedy’s assassination, Vice President Lyndon Johnson would be sworn into the Presidency, where he would serve for the next six years of his life. Johnson’s tenure as president would see him complete Kennedy’s lunar mission, and in the process, revitalize pieces of one of the poorest demographics in the country.
Before Kennedy’s death, the goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade was viewed by many, and later even by JFK himself, as fiscally irresponsible and technologically unfeasible.
However, after Kennedy’s assassination and the fervor that followed, Johnson had no choice but to honor Kennedy’s wishes and aggressively pursue space exploration. Johnson, a deep drawling, cowboy hat-wearing, proud southerner from Stonewall, Texas also had other uses for the fledgling space program.
At a time when civil rights discourse was at an all-time high, Johnson was desperate to reign in his beloved Southland. A southerner himself, Johnson likely saw the problem of racism in the region as more complex than many of his political counterparts from outside the region.
Many northern politicians at the time attributed southern prejudices to mere stupidity and ignorance, while Johnson believed that southern ills were connected to the heavily agrarian lifestyle that many southern communities continued to sustain.
In the Apollo missions, Johnson saw a solution to the problem presented by the south: Use dollars allocated for the space program to fund, develop, and revitalize rural southern communities with good jobs and cutting-edge technology.
For his critics, Johnson’s space program seemed like a thorough waste of money in which taxpayer dollars would quite literally be launched into space. Johnson, however, understood that while the machines built by NASA funds would reach the moon, the dollars that built them would surely fall back to Earth, landing in the communities from which they were launched.
By the end of the decade, Johnson had sent billions of dollars to NASA centers in Huntsville, Alabama; Houston, Texas; Cape Canaveral, Florida; and Jackson County, Mississippi.
While the moon landings may seem like distant history, Johnson’s technology investments in the South remain relevant. Huntsville, once a small agricultural community, now boasts a population of nearly 200,000 and is one of the most educated cities in the country.
Jackson County, Mississippi, still a rural hamlet of fewer than 50,000, now has the fifth-highest per capita household income in the state and continues to hold NASA’s largest facility for testing rocket engines. Cape Canaveral and Houston, while more urban than their rural counterparts, have also benefited—the NASA facilities in both cities continue to provide millions of dollars in yearly income and host thousands of local jobs for community members.
Despite Johnson’s best efforts, the fervor of space exploration that followed Kennedy’s assassination could not continue indefinitely.
While many of the communities where Johnson-mandated space centers are built continue to thrive today, a far greater number of communities in rural America have decayed since the 1960s.
Currently, 12 out of the 13 poorest states by poverty rate are located in the South or Appalachia, with New Mexico, being the only outlier, ranking 48th out of 50 in total poverty rates. When analyzed on a county level, America’s poorest people tend to live in municipalities located in rural Appalachia, completely or partially on Native reservations, or in counties located on Southern America’s “Black Belt.”
In every census region in the country, poverty in non-metro areas outpaces poverty in urban areas, with the South holding the largest disparity of 6.1 percent.
While poverty in rural America remains persistent, so does public interest in space exploration. With the government currently planning manned missions to Mars, as well as exploration of other moons, planets, and planetary bodies, government investment in space is expected to number in the trillions of dollars over the next 50 years.
As this money is invested, President Biden has the opportunity to follow in Johnson’s footsteps and look to rural America as a place to plan, build, and launch future space missions. This task should be easy considering the many locations in rural America that harbor deep ties to past space endeavors. McDowell County, West Virginia, population 22,000, records a poverty rate of nearly 33 percent, and a life expectancy far below the national average for both men and women.
In McDowell, unemployment and a lack of opportunity is rife, largely due to the decline of the coal industry in the region. Notably, McDowell county birthed Homer Hickam, a NASA engineer and legendary leader of the “rocket boys” featured in the film October Sky. Comparable to more urban sites, land in McDowell is cheap, and opportunity is scarce. Building a NASA center in the county could jumpstart the local economy and provide badly needed resources while simultaneously paying homage to Homer Hickam’s contributions to space exploration.
McDowell County is far from the only site that hosts both adequate needs, and sufficient history for a space center. Tuba City, Arizona, with a population of 8,600, is another worthy candidate.
Like McDowell, Tuba City has significant economic struggles and is located within the territory of the Navajo Nation. NASA already has a strong connection with the Navajo. Currently, soil and rocks discovered on Mars are being named in the Navajo language.
Furthermore, Aaron Yazzie, a leading Diné scientist on the Mars 2020 and Insight rover missions, is a native of Tuba, City. These are just two of the many communities in need of government investment that could be revitalized by NASA programs.
When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, it carried with it 100,756 pounds of cargo, three astronauts, and the hopes and livelihoods of thousands of Texans, Mississippians, and Floridians. While rocket technology has changed immensely over the last five decades, rural America remains an inexpensive, reliable, and hugely beneficial prospect that will require government investment in the decades to come. In particular, communities on Native land, the Southern Black Belt, and rural Appalachia have continually suffered lower life expectancies, higher poverty rates, and a chronic lack of opportunity.
The work of President Johnson’s space program in the 1960s demonstrated that where NASA goes, opportunity often follows.
As President Biden and other American leaders prepare to set their sights on the heavens, they would do well to turn their gaze back to the rural ground from which previous generations of astronauts have flown, and remember that with the right investment, future astronauts could fly again.