So, Space Shuttle Pilot Eileen Collins Speaking at the RNC. That Was Interesting
Ted Cruz wasn’t the only speaker who didn’t endorse Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention last night.
First there was Eileen Collins, the first female space shuttle pilot and commander. Her decision to speak at a convention honoring Trump—a man known for expressing opinions on many things, space exploration not among them—had puzzled some in the space community. So when she got to the end of her speech, the omission was notable.
The prewritten text of Collins’ speech ended with, “We need leadership that will make America great again. That leader is Donald Trump.” But she never said the last sentence.
Collins has been critical of the Obama administration and NASA’s current mission for a few years now. Last night, she hammered home the consequences of ending the shuttle program. “The last time the United States launched our own astronauts from our own soil was five years ago,” she said. “We must do better than that.” Who is “better”? Collins declined to say.
Even though her appearance was a bit of a puzzler, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver believes Collins endorsed Trump just by showing up in Cleveland and addressing the GOP delegates. “It will be seen as a slap to Hillary, and an endorsement of Trump,” said Garver, who left the Obama administration in 2013. “I’m sorry that someone that I have a lot of respect for feels that way.”
In her speech, Collins criticized the Obama administration’s failure to send crews directly from Cape Kennedy to the space station. But it was actually former Republican president George W. Bush who made that decision to cancel the space shuttle, says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University. “I found her remarks a little unfortunate,” Logsdon said.
Space exploration is hardly a partisan issue. But as with almost everything else this year, the parties are looking for any edge possible. That may explain why Collins—who has criticized President Obama’s decision to kill the Constellation moon mission in 2009—made the flight to Cleveland.
Space exploration fans (and decision-makers figuring out how to get there) are of two minds about the future. There’s the go-to-Moon-first camp, like Collins, and there’s the go-to-Mars-do-not-pass-Moon camp (private enterprisers like Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos, SpaceX’s Elon Musk and the Dutch Mars One folks).
The Moon-first argument goes something like this: Why not use a return moonshot as a testbed for the same kinds of technology, propulsion systems, and organizational planning that it would take to get to Mars? NASA had that idea for a while. But in 2009, President Obama killed the Constellation program because of cost overruns—although pieces of it, like the Orion crew vehicle, still exist today.
Since then, NASA has embarked on a slow-walk toward Mars, first planning on landing a ship on an asteroid, and then getting US boots on the red planet by the early 2030s. NASA has also grown to include commercial space companies in its plans under the Obama administration.
For some, that’s not enough. In recent months, Collins has testified on Capitol Hill that NASA needs to become a leader in space, advocating for legislation to make the NASA administrator a 10-year job appointed by a board of directors. The president now appoints the NASA chief.
For his part, Trump has shown little or no interest in space, telling a 10-year-old at a New Hampshire event that “I love NASA” and “space is terrific,” reported the Washington Post. But Trump added: “Right now, we have bigger problems—you understand that? We’ve got to fix our potholes.”
The GOP Platform endorses more federal dollars for private space companies. It also says that these partnerships between NASA and private companies have saved taxpayer money and created new technologies.
But James Crawley, a member of the commission that killed Constellation and a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, said that it’s not politics that is driving the direction of human space exploration these days.
“It wasn’t that long ago that commercial space was a Republican issue,” said Crawley. “But now it is embraced by the Obama administration. It’s a non-partisan idea and broadly backed. The real barrier is that the administration has to find money in the budget to do it.”
The Democratic Party officials will unveil their final platform next Monday. That could give another clue as to whether a NASA Mars mission will become a reality for the next administration, or just another Hollywood blockbuster.
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