President Donald Trump held up America’s space effort as a unifying endeavor for a divided nation after becoming only the third sitting president to witness the launch of American astronauts in person.
Trump, along with Vice President Mike Pence and other VIPs, made the journey to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida not just once but twice this week.
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The first time around, Trump and other family members including his wife, Melania Trump, flew down from Washington for a launch attempt that ended up being scrubbed due to weather concerns.
He returned today and watched SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket send NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on their way to the International Space Station in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule.
It marked the first in-person presidential viewing of a crewed launch since President Bill Clinton watched John Glenn ride the shuttle Discovery to space in 1998. Before that, President Richard Nixon attended Apollo 12’s launch in 1969. (President Lyndon Johnson saw Apollo 11 lift off after he left office, and President Barack Obama missed seeing the shuttle Endeavour’s last launch due to a technical scrub.)
After the SpaceX launch, Trump delivered remarks at NASA’s cavernous Vehicle Assembly Building with VIPs, launch team members and journalists in the audience.
“We were filled with the sense of pride and unity that brings us together as Americans,” Trump said. “That same spirit which powered our astronauts to the moon has also helped lift our country to ever-greater heights of justice and opportunity throughout our history.”
Trump didn’t wear a mask during his visit, but he did acknowledge the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“The same spirit of American determination that sends our people into space will conquer this disease on Earth [that] should’ve never happened.” he said. “Nothing, not even gravity itself, can hold Americans down or keep America back.”
The president also referred to the unrest that has roiled many of the nation’s cities after police in Minneapolis killed a black resident named George Floyd during a streetside encounter.
Trump said “we will stand with the family of George Floyd, with the peaceful protesters and with every law-abiding citizen who wants decency, civility, safety and security.” But he also said “my administration will stop mob violence.”
He claimed that the violence was being led by “radical left-wing groups” — but authorities in Minnesota say it’s not yet clear who’s responsible for provoking the violence. Some have said far-right groups appear to have encouraged their followers to descend on the state and take advantage of the crisis.
Trump talked up some coming attractions in space. “We have created the envy of the world and will soon be landing on Mars, and we’ll soon have the greatest weapons ever imagined in history,” he said. “I’ve already seen designs, and even I can’t believe it.” (That may be a reference to hypersonic weapons development.)
At the same time, he talked down the policies of the Obama administration. “When I first came into office, three and a half years ago, NASA had lost its way, and the excitement, energy and ambition, as almost everybody in this room knows, was gone,” Trump said.
Former Vice President Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee to run against Trump in November, took issue with that view. In a statement, Biden noted that NASA’s commercial crew program was started up during the Obama administration.
“This mission represents the culmination of work begun years ago, and which President Obama and I fought hard to ensure would become a reality,” Biden said.
During a post-launch news briefing, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took a middle-of-the-road course: He praised the work done during the Obama administration by his predecessor, Charles Bolden, as well as the initiative shown by the Trump administration in setting a course for the moon and Mars.
“What is great about NASA is, we bring people together,” said Bridenstine, who was a Republican congressman representing an Oklahoma district before he was chosen to head NASA.
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SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who received kudos from Trump at the Vehicle Assembly Building, agreed with Bridenstine’s sentiment. “We need more positive, good things in this world,” Musk said during the briefing.
Musk also managed to get in a diplomatic dig at Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin, who said during the 2014 Ukraine crisis that U.S. sanctions against Russia would have a negative effect on NASA.
“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” Rogozin said via his Russian-language Twitter account.
Today, Bridenstine noted that Rogozin sent out a statement that was “overwhelmingly congratulatory towards NASA and SpaceX.”
“The trampoline is working,” Musk quipped. “Inside joke.”
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