President Donald Trump plans to travel to Florida on Wednesday to watch the launch of SpaceX’s manned test mission to the International Space Station, according to a U.S. official, as he seeks to project an image of normalcy amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The launch will mark the first time NASA astronauts have blasted off from U.S. soil since the end of the space shuttle program in 2011.
Trump has resumed trips outside Washington and is urging a quick return to normal routines despite U.S. deaths from the coronavirus approaching 100,000. He has shown increasing exasperation with state social distancing regulations that have closed down the U.S. economy and threaten his re-election in November.
The event is significant in that two American companies will provide ferry service to the space station, and it will also be the first time SpaceX has flown humans.
Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are scheduled to arrive at the space station on May 28 and stay for at least 30 days — and possibly as long as 110, according to NASA. The mission duration will be determined by the readiness of the next commercial crew launch.
In 2014, NASA awarded Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Boeing Co. contracts worth nearly $7 billion to fly U.S. astronauts to the space station. Russia has provided the sole crew transport since the space shuttle’s retirement.
The president’s re-election campaign has looked to capitalize on American space exploration — and his push to create the Space Force as a new branch of the military — in its merchandise and messaging.
In 2018, the campaign allowed supporters to vote on merchandise for the new military branch, and supporters can buy hats, T-shirts, and bumper stickers touting the Space Force on the re-election website today. Last week, Trump unveiled the official Space Force flag in the Oval Office.
To maintain a strong U.S. presence on the space station, and because of delays in Boeing’s and SpaceX’s development of their own commercial crew shuttles, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been negotiating with Russia’s space agency to take an additional seat on its Soyuz shuttle next year. NASA has only one crew member currently aboard the station.
Last month, Boeing said it would conduct a second test flight, without crew, of its CST-100 Starliner vehicle after the first attempt in December was cut short by software problems. That flight is planned for later this year.
--With assistance from Justin Bachman