Trump wants America looking at the stars as he drags it through the gutter

David Smith in Washington
Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Making America great again just wasn’t enough. “President Trump is making space great again,” the Republican National Committee declared this week.

Donald Trump returns to Cape Canaveral in Florida on Saturday to witness the rescheduled launch of a SpaceX rocket carrying Nasa astronauts that was delayed by weather three days earlier.

After that anticlimax, the US president will be pinning his hopes on a spectacle loaded with patriotic and political symbolism. Nine years after the space shuttle program fizzled out under Barack Obama, Trump wants to witness astronauts lift off from American soil once again.

The mission, billed as “Launch America”, also offers a welcome diversion from the coronavirus pandemic. Trump may hope that it will boost his optimistic narrative that the country is regaining its swagger – and show him reaching for the stars even as his earthbound rival Joe Biden stews in his basement.

But while the astronauts wear sleek spacesuits and operate touchscreens that point to the future, their adventure is also redolent of the past: nostalgia for an age of perceived American exceptionalism and “we can do anything” spirit embodied by the Apollo missions to the moon. In Trump’s view, a time when America was “great”.

“Donald Trump is looking for any symbol of hopefulness and finding a symbol for the 1960s of America’s successes in space is a way for him to connect with a better time in America and make the argument that he is reviving that better time,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota.

A man adjusts his mask at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, at Cape Canaveral on Thursday. The center reopened today after closing on 16 March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Photograph: Charlie Riedel/AP

Human spaceflight, with the potential to plant the Stars and Stripes on new worlds, has a natural appeal to a president who likes big shows of national virility, such as military parades and Fourth of July fireworks, and whose stated cultural touchstones – Babe Ruth, Alfred E Neuman, Donna Reed – are from a different era.

During his first year in office, Trump signed a directive for Nasa to work with private sector partners for a human return to the moon, followed by a mission to Mars. He re-established the National Space Council, which had been abolished by President Bill Clinton.

The president has also created the sixth branch of the armed forces, the Space Force. Receiving its flag earlier this month, he boasted of new military equipment including a “super-duper missile”. The space force has been widely mocked for its likeness to Star Trek and even inspired a Netflix comedy series, starring Steve Carell, that started on Friday.

Trump’s political priorities are evident in other ways. Earlier this month the Reuters news agency reported his administration is drafting a legal blueprint for mining on the moon under a new US-sponsored international agreement called the Artemis Accords.

He has eased regulations on private industry space efforts. The launch of a crew by SpaceX – owned by Elon Musk, also the chief executive of Tesla – will be the first by a private company rather than a national space agency, which is on-brand for a president who came from the business world.

With an eye on the November election, Trump has increasingly sought to downplay the public health toll of the virus and Saturday’s liftoff, which conveniently happens in the swing state of Florida, could reinforce that message in dramatic fashion.

Jacobs added: “The whole operation for Donald Trump is to keep your eyeballs moving away from the reality that we’re in a pandemic and the economy has collapsed. Space travel is America’s little boy’s fascination and, rather than thinking about our current misery, we get to look at the sky and dream of different worlds.”

Space is one of the few domains where Democrats and Republicans still regularly cooperate and where public goodwill endures. Last year crowds thronged the National Mall in Washington to watch a sound and light show, designed by artists who worked on the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

They saw the Saturn V rocket projected on to the Washington Monument and heard President John F Kennedy’s 1962 declaration that is now part of national mythology: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

The SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 booster rocket sits at sunrise on Pad39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on Friday. Photograph: Steve Nesius/Reuters

Trump, by contrast, sowed confusion when he tweeted last year: “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon - We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”

Since the heady days of Apollo, there have been achievements including the Hubble telescope and international space station, but “moonshot” has become a phrase applied by politicians to almost any endeavor except the moon itself. Bill Galston, a former policy adviser to President Clinton, recalled: “I was in high school when Kennedy spoke those words and I can’t tell you how different the context was from today or how different the mentality or consciousness of the country was.”

Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, watched the 1969 moon landing from a US marine base in Vietnam as war raged. “Everything else was going absolutely haywire and the country was in a terrible place but, even so, the symbolism of spaceflight was still fresh enough. I don’t think you can bottle that lightning again, especially with the country in the mood and circumstances it’s now in.”

Even Trump’s evocation of a lost golden age is less innocent than it seems. Kennedy had little interest in space exploration but, after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957, saw the cold war imperative of reaching the moon first.

Civil rights protesters marched on Cape Kennedy, as it was then, on the eve of the Apollo 11 launch, arguing that the vast sums spent on the space program could lift millions of African Americans out of poverty. The musician and poet Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon highlighted the disparity. All 12 people who walked on the moon were white and male.

John Logsdon, a space historian and professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, recalls that the Apollo era did not feel morally superior at the time. “I lived through it and we didn’t perceive ourselves quite in that heroic role. But Trump is a believer in American exceptionalism and that’s been a theme since at least the end of World War Two.

“It’s politically attractive. Whatever one thinks about Mr Trump, he knows about symbols, he knows about advertising and he knows the kind of themes that are attractive to a broad segment of the population. I think he has concluded that a successful space program is one of the things that has those attributes.”

Thus the Trump re-election campaign claimed this week that the Obama-Biden administration neglected Nasa for years and cut its budget, forcing America’s space program to rely on Russia.

“Thanks to President Trump, space exploration is once again a top priority,” it said. “Joe Biden, meanwhile, hasn’t said much about the issue, indicating that in a Biden presidency, space exploration would take a back seat to Biden’s radical, expensive climate change agenda.”

But whether such attack ads will convince voters that Trump has the right stuff remains questionable as the coronavirus focuses attention closer to home. Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist and director of the Center for the Political Future at the University of Southern California, said: “The country would like steady, experienced leadership that listens to science and doesn’t grandstand and actually cares when 100,000 people are killed. Tesla in the sky doesn’t make up for 100,000 dead people.”