WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump used a speech after the successful SpaceX Crew Dragon launch May 30 to tout his administration’s accomplishments in space, some of which predate his time in office, rather than announce any new initiatives.
Trump spoke inside the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the Kennedy Space Center a little more than 90 minutes after the Crew Dragon spacecraft, with NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley on board, reached orbit in the first human orbital spaceflight from the United States in nearly nine years.
“This is the first big space message in 50 years. Think of that,” Trump said. It was not clear what he meant by that statement, as the speech broke little new ground with regards to space policy, particularly compared to speeches by earlier presidents that announced new policies.
Trump thanked the Crew Dragon astronauts, as well as NASA and SpaceX founder Elon Musk, for the success of the mission, singling out Musk in particular as someone who “truly embodies the American ethos” by taking a risk founding the company. “He could have spent his fortune doing anything, including yachting,” he said. “But, in 2002, he began pouring tens of millions of dollars of his own money into research and development for a new rocket.”
He used the speech largely to celebrate the successful launch as well as other space policy developments during his administration, from last year’s announcement directing NASA to return humans to the surface of the moon by 2024 to the establishment last December of the U.S. Space Force. He did not make any new announcements, either about high-level policy or more specifics, in his half-hour remarks.
“We have created the envy of the world and we’ll soon be landing on Mars and we’ll soon have the greatest weapons ever imagined in history. I’ve already seen designs, and even I can’t believe it,” he said. The Mars reference appeared to be to NASA’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but it was not clear what weapons he was referring to.
He emphasized the importance of space superiority, which he said fit into the “America first” theme of his administration. “As has often been stated, you can’t be number one on Earth if you are number two in space,” he said. “We are not going to be number two anywhere.”
He also criticized the Obama administration for what he perceived as its failure to do more in space. “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,” he said. “The last administration presided over the closing of the space shuttle.”
The space shuttle’s final mission took place in 2011, during President Barack Obama’s first term. However, the decision to end the shuttle program dates back to President George W. Bush in 2004, who announced plans to retire the shuttle after completion of the assembly of the International Space Station, then scheduled for 2010.
Trump made similar comments to a press pool immediately after the launch. “Four years ago, this place was essentially shut down,” he claimed. “The space program was over. The shuttle program was dead. One of the Secret Servicemen said they were here with the past administration — I won’t tell you who — and they were here to shut down the facility.”
Four years ago, there was significant activity at KSC to prepare launch facilities for use by both NASA’s exploration program and commercial partners. That included renovating Launch Complex 39A, which NASA leased to SpaceX for use on Falcon launches, the first of which took place from that pad in February 2017. NASA was also renovating Launch Complex 39B for eventual use by the Space Launch System.
The commercial crew program that Trump celebrated in the speech also predates his administration, formally starting under the Obama administration and building on the commercial cargo program that began several years earlier in the Bush administration.
By contrast, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine credited Charles Bolden, who led the agency during the Obama administration, for his work backing the early commercial crew program. “There was a day when Charlie Bolden, my predecessor at NASA as administrator, was trying to get this program off the ground,” he said at a post-launch press conference. “He had members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that were in opposition to it and wouldn’t adequately fund it, and ultimately gave him a hard time about it.”
Bolden, he recalled, “persevered and he pushed through. That was the beginning of what we all got to experience today.”
The accomplishment of restoring orbital human spaceflight capability to the United States after nearly nine years, however, was overshadowed by both the coronavirus pandemic that has now claimed more than 100,000 lives across the nation, as well as protests in many American cities about the death of George Floyd, who died while being arrested by police in Minneapolis May 25. Those protests have, in many cases, turned violent.
Trump made only a brief reference to the pandemic in his remarks, but spent several minutes at the beginning of his speech saying he would seek justice in the Floyd case and supporting the right for peaceful protest, but decrying violence that he blamed on “radical left criminals, thugs and others.”
Bridenstine, at the press conference, recalled the unifying effect NASA has on the nation during the unrest in the late 1960s as the agency sent astronauts to the moon. “We had this moment in time — July 20, 1969 — when all of America of stopped, literally just stopped, because we had American astronauts walking on the surface of the moon,” he said.
“What is great about NASA is that we bring people together. Everybody loves exploration,” he continued. “I think it happened today, as a matter of fact: all of America stopped.” According to many local and national media reports, protests in several cities were ongoing at the time of the launch, and did not pause for it.