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Why the Trump ‘Make Space Great Again’ campaign ad went sideways

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One result of the SpaceX Crew Dragon’s successful flight to NASA’s International Space Station is that the Trump for President Campaign has taken on space exploration as an issue. The decision has manifested itself in the production of a campaign ad called “Make Space Great Again.” However, the ad went sideways when it was discovered that it violated NASA regulations against its employees, including astronauts, appearing in commercials. The ad caused several other problems. It was eventually taken down.

The ad was really inspiring stuff. It started, naturally, with JFK’s “We Choose to Go to the Moon” speech along with scenes from the Apollo 11 moon landing. The ad even showed Walter Cronkite weeping with joy on the air when the big moment happens.

The commercial segued to scenes from the flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon. Trump is seen speaking inspiring words about space exploration. Children look up at the heavens in wonder. American flags appear — lots of American flags. An astronaut carries the Stars and Stripes on the surface of Mars.

Usually when space becomes an issue in a major American political campaign it is framed in the negative. Mitt Romney infamously mocked Newt Gingrich for proposing a moon base in the 2012 presidential election. Apollo moonwalker Harrison Schmitt was limited to one term as a United States Senator for allegedly spending too much time on space policy and not enough time on the concerns of his state, asking “What on Earth has he done for you lately?”

The “Make Space Great Again” ad was perhaps the first time that space had been used as a positive issue in a presidential campaign. It is as if Richard Nixon had run in 1972 touting the Apollo program as his signature accomplishment instead of winding down the moon program.

Clearly Team Trump has some polling data suggesting that space is a winning issue for the president. The idea makes a lot of sense. Between the coronavirus pandemic and the recent civil unrest sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an African-American man, at the hands of a police officer, the flight of the Crew Dragon to the ISS shines as the only positive event to have been on the news lately.

The Crew Dragon’s flight has everything, combining the glories of NASA space exploration with the pluck and risk taking of SpaceX, whose CEO, Elon Musk, is an immigrant from South Africa. The idea of commercial spacecraft servicing NASA started with George W. Bush, and the Commercial Crew program was developed by Barack Obama. But Donald Trump was the president who watched the liftoff of the Falcon 9. The image, included in the ad, speaks more than any reminder of the role of Trump’s predecessors.

The “Make Space Great Again” ad would have complicated NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine’s efforts to make space, especially the Artemis return to the moon program, nonpartisan. Democrats may resent Trump’s grabbing the glory and the credit for the Crew Dragon mission. NASA depends on Democratic support to gain the funding necessary for landing the first woman and the next man on the moon by 2024.

Some congressional Democrats suspect that the 2024 date for America’s return to the moon is politically motivated, to provide a capstone to a hypothetical second Trump term. The ad would tend to validate that suspicion.

On the other hand, the ad applied a great deal of pressure on Joe Biden, the former vice president who is running to replace Trump, to develop his own space policy. Biden has already tried to grab his own share of the credit for the Crew Dragon flight. Team Biden has to develop a space policy that is not only distinct from Trump’s but also from Obama’s. It cannot be a flat rejection of the Artemis program. Otherwise Trump would hammer him for opposing American exceptionalism.

Unfortunately, whatever positive effect the “Make Space Great Again” would have had was diluted by the social media firestorm generated by the depiction of the Crew Dragon astronauts and their relatives without their knowledge or consent. Karen Nyberg, wife of one of the Crew Dragon astronauts and a former astronaut herself, was particularly offended and said so on Twitter.

Team Trump will doubtless rework the ad and upload a revised version that complies with NASA regulations. They might consider acknowledging the contributions of both the Bush 43 and Obama administrations to the Commercial Crew program. The acknowledgment would demonstrate a rare example of statesmanship and will provide a selling point for Trump as uncharacteristically magnanimous.  

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.

Tags Artemis Artemis program Barack Obama Crew Dragon Donald Trump Elon Musk Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden Mars Mitt Romney moon landing NASA Newt Gingrich Space exploration Space travel SpaceX

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