WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump is heading back to Florida on Saturday to watch a space launch, a trip that will cost taxpayers at least another $1.1 million and may potentially add pressure on NASA officials to lift off in marginal conditions ― but it will almost certainly give Trump some cool video footage for campaign ads.
Trump already attended Wednesday’s initial launch attempt for SpaceX’s very first flight of its Crew Dragon capsule intended to carry two astronauts to the International Space Station. He had been scheduled to deliver a speech after liftoff but left immediately to fly back to Washington after the launch was called off because of bad weather.
The forecast for Saturday afternoon’s launch time again includes a chance of poor weather, including rain and thunderclouds in the area.
On Wednesday, Trump’s presence did not prevent launch managers from scrubbing the launch. However, NASA has historically been aware that the attendance of top-level political officials can add subtle pressure to launch even when conditions are not optimal. There has also been an awareness through the years that the presence of the president can complicate matters if there is an emergency or accident.
In almost six decades of human spaceflight, presidents have attended launches only twice: In 1998, when Bill Clinton was on hand for a space shuttle launch that included former Mercury astronaut John Glenn, and in 1969, when Richard Nixon attended the launch of Apollo 12 (that flight nearly ended in disaster when the Saturn 5 rocket was struck by lightning triggered by its own ionized exhaust).
No president has ever attended the inaugural flight of any crewed vehicle ― not John F. Kennedy for Mercury-Redstone 3, not Lyndon Johnson for Gemini 3 or Apollo 7, not Ronald Reagan for the first space shuttle flight in 1981, although Reagan was convalescing after having been shot two weeks earlier. Reagan did not attend the shuttle’s “return to flight” launch in 1988 following the 1986 Challenger disaster, and George W. Bush did not attend a second return to flight in 2005 following the 2003 breakup of Columbia during reentry.
NASA headquarters spokesperson Allard Beutel said the fact that launch officials called off Wednesday’s attempt despite Trump’s presence speaks for itself. “Having both the president and vice president come to witness in person this NASA SpaceX launch of American astronauts on an American rocket and spacecraft from American soil to the International Space Station shows what a historic moment in spaceflight history it really is,” he said.
John Logsdon, the founder of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he doubted Trump’s attendance would hamper sound decision-making, even if it meant a second scrubbed launch.
“Having Trump present will be a distraction for senior NASA folks, but the launch team operates on its own and are unlikely to allow their bosses into the go-no-go loop,” he said.
Neither the White House nor the Trump campaign would return HuffPost queries about whether footage from a successful launch would make its way into a campaign ad.
His campaign, however, has not been shy about turning around video from purportedly “official” events ― those paid for entirely by taxpayers and, in theory, done on behalf of all Americans ― into reelection videos. Trump’s multimillion-dollar July 4 extravaganza on the National Mall last year later appeared in his videos. And Trump’s March 28 visit to Norfolk, Virginia, for the sailing of the hospital ship Comfort made it into a Trump campaign ad released May 4.
Jordan Libowitz, with the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington watchdog group, said Trump is not the first president to use footage from official events in campaign ads, and it does not appear to be illegal. “The presence of top campaign surrogates and quick turnaround for an ad certainly could make people question whether the trip was done for the purpose of the ad, which is not what official business is for,” he said.
Each hour that the modified 747 jetliner that Trump normally uses as Air Force One is in the air costs $273,063, according to a General Accountability Office analysis, meaning a round trip to Kennedy Space Center runs $1.1 million. That figure does not include the $58,000 that his helicopter trip from the White House to Joint Base Andrews and back costs, nor the several hundreds of thousands of dollars that ferrying his motorcade aboard C-17 cargo planes costs. That amount varies with the starting location of the planes and the cars and vans, which differs with each trip.