On Twitter, Karen Nyberg, a former astronaut and wife of Doug Hurley, who was carried to the International Space Station by the SpaceX launch, blasted the advertisement, saying she found “it disturbing that a video image of me and my son is being used in political propaganda without my knowledge or consent. That is wrong.”
Hurley and Bob Behnken were the first American astronauts to be lifted into orbit from American soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.
The event was watched by millions and provided a moment of inspiration amid protests over George Floyd’s death and the fear of the global pandemic.
The ad also runs against NASA regulations that prohibit the agency from endorsing “a commercial product, service or activity.”
“Astronauts or employees who are currently employed by NASA cannot have their names, likenesses or other personality traits displayed in any advertisements or marketing material,” the rules say.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
An online petition urging the campaign to remove the ad had more than 7,000 signatures by Friday. “NASA and the space industry as a whole have long tried to stay out of politics, and, until this Administration, that goal was at least partly attained,” the petition read.
NASA goes to great lengths to avoid endorsing any ideology or product, even going so far as to call the M&Ms astronauts gobble in space “candy-coated chocolates” out of fear of appearing to favor one brand of candy.
But politicians have from time to time used NASA’s exploits as the backdrop for their own political drama. “Watching the ad, I was reminded of Richard Nixon at the time of Apollo 11,” said John Logsdon, a space historian and a professor emeritus at George Washington University. “He had nothing to do with Apollo 11; he just happened to be the president when it happened. But he wrapped himself in the event. And never once mentioned Kennedy.”
In the early days of the Space Shuttle, two influential members of Congress scored rides. Sen. Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah, was the head of the appropriations committee that funded NASA, and leveraged his position to fly on the Shuttle, saying he “needed to kick the tires” of the program his committee had been funding.
The Doonesbury comic strip had a field day with Garn’s flight, calling it “the most extraordinary junket in the history of Congress.” Opinion columnists derided the flight as a “phenomenal waste of taxpayer money,” and said Congress was trying to “turn the space program into their own private Disneyland.”
Many were delighted when Garn reached orbit and immediately got sick. In Houston, astronauts developed what they called the “Garn scale:” 5, you were mildly sick; 1, you were puking your brains out.
The outrage didn’t deter another member of Congress, Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, who flew the following year.
Trump has said he has no desire to go to space — though he did recently indicate to reporters that he would like to send a few of them there. He clearly was eager to use the successful launch as a high moment for his administration, and campaign. And when the SpaceX launch was scrubbed on its original date, he came back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for the second attempt, ready to deliver a speech touting his administration’s efforts in space.
“A new age of American ambition has now begun,” Trump said following the launch. “Those of us who saw the spectacular and unforgettable lift off this afternoon watched more than an act of history. We watched an act of heroism.”
Trump has made space a priority, and has sought to increase NASA’s budget significantly to fuel an attempt to return astronauts to the moon by 2024 under a dramatically expedited timeline that many think impossible. He has also reconstituted the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Pence and pushed for the formation of the Space Force.
Trump 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.”
NASA began relying on the private sector for launches to the space station under President George W. Bush when it hired SpaceX and a company then called Orbital Sciences to fly cargo and supplies there. Under President Barack Obama, the space agency extended the program to hire two companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to fly its astronauts in what was a controversial decision, derided by many who thought the private sector should not be entrusted with the lives of NASA’s astronauts.
NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, however, has gone out of his way to praise his predecessor, Charlie Bolden, who served as the head of the space agency under Obama.
“Charlie Bolden did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground, get if going,” he said in the days leading up to the launch. “And here we are, all these years later, having this success.”
He added that the program “demonstrates the success when you have continuity of purpose going from one administration to the next.”