The upcoming launch of NASA astronauts will be a historic mission — the first launch of humans to orbit from United States soil since the space shuttle retired almost a decade ago.
It’s also a make or break moment for the Trump administration.
If it goes well, it would be a moment of triumph for an administration that boasts it is “renewing American leadership in space” and would no doubt end up in election-year campaign ads. If something goes wrong, it would be a staggering blow that could send the space agency reeling and jeopardize the White House’s signature mission to return astronauts to the moon by 2024.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine came to the agency knowing the first flight of astronauts from U.S. soil would likely happen on his watch and that the stakes would be enormous. During one of his very first news conferences, he addressed the risks, recalling the national devastation after the failures of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which together cost 14 lives.
NASA wants to have “the absolute safest program we possibly can have. The reason for that, of course, is because if we lose an astronaut, the whole world stops,” he said in 2018. “It doesn’t just mean that NASA stops doing human exploration for the next three years or more, as we saw after Columbia and Challenger. It means the president of the United States stops what he’s doing … And presidents and prime ministers around the world stop what they’re doing. That’s how important this is to the entire world.”
To this White House, space holds a special place — at once a frontier to explore, a domain that’s been militarized and an opportunity for economic expansion. It has moved aggressively on all fronts, reconstituting the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, speeding up efforts to return to the moon, standing up a new military branch, Space Force, and slashing regulations while promoting the growth of a commercial space industry.
Even some Democrats have praised the administration for making space a priority, and Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who was confirmed by a narrow party-line vote, has earned admiration and respect from across the aisle.
So far, however, it remains to be seen whether any of the administration’s efforts will achieve the kind of success the Trump administration envisions. Despite the full force of the White House, and a pledge by Pence to get to the lunar surface “by any means necessary,” the Artemis lunar program is struggling to find support in Congress. Some Democrats have accused the White House of playing politics with the nation’s space program, by attempting to speed up a landing so that it would fall in Trump’s second term.
Critics say the Space Force is little more than a pointless exercise in bureaucratic reshuffling. And NASA’s effort to restore human spaceflight to United States soil, under NASA’s Commercial Crew program, has suffered years of delays and setbacks.
Trump has shown interest in space and said he’s “thinking about going” to the SpaceX launch. He’s praised the high-profile “space barons” like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who have started space companies. “Rich guys, they love rocket ships,” he said in 2018. “That’s good. That’s better than us paying for them.” (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But he’s also sent confusing signs on his administration’s goals, tweeting last year that “NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon — We did that 50 years ago.” Officials later clarified that the statement that seemed to undercut his own administration’s plans to return to the lunar surface was really intended to push the idea of using the moon as a steppingstone to Mars.
But before it does any of that, NASA must show it can fly astronauts reliably to a much closer target — the International Space Station, in orbit some 240 miles high. A successful launch would be the culmination of a program launched by President Barack Obama.
The commercial crew program, as it is called, was a risky proposition from the start — a bold experiment by NASA to outsource human spaceflight to the private sector that has led to an improbable moment in the history of America’s space program: two NASA astronauts strapping into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, a spacecraft that has never before flown humans.
Now the stakes for the May 27 mission are even higher. On Monday, NASA’s head of human exploration, Douglas Loverro, abruptly resigned, a shocking development that has raised questions about the agency’s position to pull it off safely with yet another glaring vacancy at the top of its bureaucracy.
Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Okla., the chair of the House space subcommittee, wrote on Twitter that she “was deeply concerned about this sudden resignation, especially eight days before the first scheduled launch of US astronauts on US soil in almost a decade.”
She added that under “this Administration, we’ve seen a pattern of abrupt departures that have disrupted our efforts at human spaceflight.” Loverro’s resignation came after William Gerstenmaier, the longtime head of human spaceflight, was demoted last year.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chair of the House Science Committee, said in a statement she trusts Bridenstine “will ensure that the right decision is made as to whether or not to delay the launch attempt.”
The shake-up at NASA’s highest ranks was not the distraction NASA or the White House wanted as it looks to celebrate what would be a huge moment for the country. In the days leading up to the flight, the White House has talked in lofty terms about the significance of the flight and how it could help unify a country riven by a divisive election campaign and reeling from the pandemic.
At a meeting Tuesday of the reconstituted National Space Council, Pence said the launch would play a key part in “renewing American leadership in space.”
The mission represents “exactly the kind of leadership that has inspired our nation throughout my lifetime, and I know it is going to be a great inspiration to the American people when we see those rockets fire next week.”
President Donald Trump even bragged recently that his administration has “reinvigorated” NASA, which he wrongly said “was dead as a door nail, but now it’s very much alive.”
Inside NASA, officials are cautiously optimistic about the test flight for its “Commercial Crew” program that would propel two veteran NASA astronauts, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, to the International Space Station. But they also are keenly aware of the risks inherent in human spaceflight — especially on a spacecraft that has never before flown humans.
Should anything go wrong, it would not only be a blow to NASA’s Commercial Crew program, but to the White House’s plan to win congressional support to increase funding so NASA could return astronauts to the lunar surface on an accelerated schedule that moved up the landing by four years to 2024.
“I’m excited to see an American rocket launch from American soil,” Horn said in an interview before Loverro’s resignation. “But I recognize there is a lot at stake here.”
It’s been a long, difficult road to get to the point of launching humans again.
In 2014, the Obama administration awarded contracts to SpaceX and Boeing to fly astronauts to the International Space Station, following a program from the George W. Bush White House that hired private companies to fly cargo and supplies there.
Flying astronauts is a far more difficult task, and both Boeing and SpaceX have had to overcome challenges that delayed the first launches from 2017.
The program took an especially embarrassing hit late last year when the maiden launch of a Boeing spacecraft, which had no crews on board, went awry as soon as it reached orbit.
It was a wake-up call for NASA to better police the companies it had entrusted with flying its astronauts.
“NASA oversight was insufficient — that’s obvious,” Loverro said earlier this year.
The mishap puts even more pressure on the upcoming launch of SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft.
“It’s been a complex journey for SpaceX to get the mission to this level of readiness, and they are to be commended” said Paul Hill, a member of NASA’s safety advisory panel and the former director of mission operations at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Still, he urged against what he called “go fever” and to remain vigilant in the days leading up to the launch.
But despite all the high-profile attention — Pence is expected to be at the launch — Kathy Lueders, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, told the safety panel its decisions would all be made with safety in mind.
“We’re not going to rush,” she said. “And we’ll launch when we’re ready.”