May 27, 2020 - Science

Why space is good politics for Trump

Illustration a podium with the United States Presidential Seal and the U.S. flag on the surface of the moon

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's exuberance around today's scheduled SpaceX launch — including his decision to travel to Florida to watch — goes beyond a personal fascination with astronauts, rockets, and how to make money and wield power in the next frontier.

The bottom line: There's a presidential election in November, and the U.S. space program enjoys wide support across party lines. It's good politics for Trump, at least for now.

  • Joe Biden also sees upside in being affiliated with the milestone.
  • His campaign organized a press call with the former NASA administrator Charles Bolden and former Senator Bill Nelson of Florida crediting the former vp as an important advocate in the Obama administration paving the way for the launch.

The big picture: With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing last year, pollsters found NASA enjoys a two-decade high in support, including Democrats and Republicans, women and men and Americans of all ages.

  • Gallup found that six in 10 Republicans and independents, and seven in 10 Democrats, said NASA does an excellent or good job.
  • Private-sector spaceflight holds the promise of new economic — and literal — frontiers at a time when Americans could use optimism about the future.
  • If successful, the launch could reduce dependence on Russia, which has been the only way for U.S. astronauts to orbit in nearly a decade.
  • Kennedy Space Center, where the launch is to occur, is in one of the most crucial battleground states for Trump's bid for re-election.
  • Trump also sees his engagement as another chance to contrast his choices with his predecessor, since the Space Shuttle program ended during Barack Obama's tenure. (But it's also true that Obama turned the focus to Mars and backed partnerships with the private sector.)

The backstory: In 2017, Trump relaunched the National Space Council started in the Eisenhower administration and tapped Vice President Mike Pence to lead it. Then last year, Trump created the Space Force, the sixth branch of the U.S. military service.

  • The Space Force is more polarizing than NASA. It drew early concerns from some defense officials who questioned whether there was sufficient need or planning and strategy behind it.
  • Republicans were twice as likely as Democrats to view the Space Force favorably in polling last year by Ipsos and C-SPAN. When Trump mentions the Space Force at rallies, his base goes wild — something he's marveled about to aides afterward flying home on Air Force One, per Axios' Jonathan Swan.
  • The Trump campaign has sold tens of thousands of pieces of Space Force merchandise, an official said.

What they're saying: "President Trump has breathed new life into space exploration and taken bold steps toward guaranteeing American space dominance," Trump campaign spokeswoman Sarah Matthews tells Axios in a statement.

  • "We will put the first woman on the Moon," she said, while charging that the last administration "made America reliant on Russia for space travel."

Between the lines: Space has always been politicized, and NASA has always been party to the whims of administrations. 

  • Even the Apollo 11 Moon landing wasn't universally lauded as a patriotic moment for all Americans to rally behind. Instead, critics tied the space race to American aggression around the world. 
  • Obama, who was responsible for championing the Commercial Crew Program that is about to bear fruit with the SpaceX launch today, cancelled the Constellation program back to the Moon after five years of Bush-era work.
  • Trump then redirected NASA back to the Moon, effectively reverting back to those Republican-championed policies. 

NASA's ambitious missions can't conform to political timelines. They sometimes need a decade or more to come to fruition.

  • This moonshot whiplash — which involves various administrations moving goalposts on NASA during political changeovers — can leave the space agency without clear direction and without funding for the big, ambitious work it takes on. 

Yes, but: The SpaceX launch on Wednesday is an example of administrations working together to achieve one goal — to launch people from the U.S. again.

  • "This is a program that demonstrates the success when you have continuity of purpose going from one administration to the next," NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told reporters Tuesday.

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