On Wednesday, Americans were set to enjoy a break from the non-stop news coverage of the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic, the Trump administration’s haphazard response to a disease that has now killed more than 100,000 people in the United States, and the seemingly endless scandals and controversies ginned up by a president who relishes dominating the national discourse.
For the first time since July 8, 2011, an American rocket was set to carry men into space from the Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39-A, the same launch pad used by the astronauts of Apollo 11 when they left earth for the Moon in 1969.
And President Donald Trump, who is always eager to take credit for any positive developments that happen under his watch, planned on marking the occasion by doing something that hasn’t regularly happened since the heady days of the Apollo program: He was going to the Kennedy Space Center to see off the first NASA astronauts to fly in SpaceX’s new Crew Dragon capsule.
Trump’s planned itinerary included a tour of some NASA facilities before he viewed the launch, after which he would deliver remarks to celebrate the return of Americans to space in an American-made vehicle.
It was certainly an unusual choice as far as recent history is concerned. While then-President Bill Clinton visited the Kennedy Space Center in 1998 to watch Mercury astronaut-turned-senator-turned-astronaut John Glenn return to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery, presidents have rarely made the trip to the Kennedy Space Center to see astronauts off in person.
Not only is Florida weather notoriously unpredictable (which causes launches to frequently be canceled, as Wednesday’s was) but the president’s — any president’s — presence at a space launch could cause him to be associated with any mishaps.
“You have the potential for going to be there on a bad day,” said Lori Garver, who served as NASA Deputy Administrator from 2009-2013. “Bad days for NASA can be a very traumatic thing.”
One veteran of a previous administration’s communications operation put it more bluntly: “You don’t send the president because you don’t want him there if anyone dies.”
But a person close to the president, who asked not to be identified so they could speak candidly, said Trump insisted on going despite being warned of the pitfalls of viewing a space launch in person.
Trump, they said, was genuinely excited about the launch and felt it would be an honest-to-goodness historical milestone worth celebrating. But the source added that the president was also intent on casting himself as the hero in this story — the indispensable man who’d, in his own words, “reinvigorated” NASA from being “dead as a doornail” when he took office. “He can’t help but promote himself,” they added.
Another source familiar with the White House’s decision-making process said Trump was hoping to cast Wednesday’s launch as yet another example of how, in the administration’s telling, Trump’s leadership had brought NASA back to space after nearly a decade of spending millions on seats on Russian Soyuz capsules.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross previewed the likely sentiment of Trump’s remarks in an interview with Fox Business Network on Wednesday.
“What has happened is, in contrast to 2011, when President Obama took us out of the space launch business, that ended our leadership in space launch. Now we're going to get it back," he said.
But the weather ended up causing NASA and SpaceX officials to cancel the launch just minutes before the Falcon 9 rocket would have taken astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken to the International Space Station, leading Trump to hastily depart Cape Canaveral shortly after NASA and SpaceX officials announced that the launch was being rescheduled for Saturday.
The cancelation may have been bad news for NASA — and Trump’s need to self-promote — but it was probably for the best as far as the truth is concerned.
Garver, who led the Obama transition team’s efforts at NASA in 2008, said Ross’ claim that Obama “took us out of the spaceflight business” is patently false.
The decision to retire the shuttle, she explained, had been made during the George W Bush administration on the advice of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which was formed in 2003 after the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry, killing the entire crew. And the contracts for the Commercial Crew program which birthed the SpaceX rocket now being used were signed on Obama’s watch, in 2011.
“George Bush announced the retirement of the space shuttle in 2004,” she said, because the board acknowledged that after more than 100 flights, including two disasters which killed 14 astronauts, the design of the shuttle had been too complex and expensive.
“They did not feel it be safe to fly beyond 2010 without a major recertification,” she said, adding that NASA civil servants told her that there was no way to extend the program because the agency had already ended contracts with second- and third-tier parts suppliers for the vehicle.
But Garver stressed that the Obama administration was still able to extend the Shuttle program with two extra flights by asking Congress for funds to make use of remaining flyable launch equipment, including two external fuel tanks.
“We ended up in our budget request asking for and paying for two additional shuttle flights, so it’s the opposite of what Secretary Ross… is saying: We didn't end human spaceflight, we saved it,” she said.
“Obama really did care about the space program, and for Trump to say NASA was deader than a doornail before he got there, and Wilbur Ross to say Obama was responsible for canceling the shuttle — these are people are very insecure about the their own abilities because everybody knows those things aren't true.”