NASA, Space Council, Shelby Get Shout-Outs from Trump in Huntsville Speech-UPDATE

NASA, Space Council, Shelby Get Shout-Outs from Trump in Huntsville Speech-UPDATE

President Trump gave shout-outs to NASA and the National Space Council during a political speech in Huntsville, AL last night, and credited Sen. Richard Shelby (R) for bringing billions of NASA dollars to the city.

Sen. Luther Strange (R-AL). Credit: Strange Senate website.

In a lengthy speech whose main purpose was to build support for Sen. Luther Strange (R) in a run-off election that will take place on Tuesday, Trump covered a lot of ground.

The space program got only a few seconds of attention, but the fact that it was mentioned at all is a sign of the importance that it has in Huntsville, home to the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC).  The speech was held in the city’s Von Braun Center named after legendary rocket engineer and visionary Wernher Von Braun who was the first director of MSFC (1960-1970).

Trump was there to support Strange, who was appointed to his Senate seat by then-Governor Robert Bentley after Jeff Sessions was confirmed as Attorney General.  The appointment is temporary until a special election can be held to fill the remainder of Sessions’s term.  That election is scheduled for December 12.  A primary was held last month that determined who the Democratic candidate will be in December (Doug Jones), but none of the Republican candidates won a majority and thus a run-off will be held on Tuesday between the top two vote-getters:  Strange and Judge Roy Moore.  It is a high stakes political election pitting two parts of the Republican party against each other.  Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell support Strange, while other conservative Republicans like Rep. Mo Brooks (who ran in the August primary, but came in third) and former Trump White House adviser Steve Bannon are backing Moore.

NASA’s activities in Alabama are likely to be fine regardless of who wins the Senate election. Space has a strong presence in Alabama both from the government and the private sector.  In addition to NASA’s MSFC, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) builds its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets in Decatur; Blue Origin will build its BE-4 rocket engine in Huntsville;  and Huntsville International Airport recently signed a contract with Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) to apply to the FAA for a license to land SNC’s Dream Chaser spacecraft there.

Current Governor Kay Ivey, who took office in April after Bentley resigned amid a scandal, recently signed a law creating an Alabama Space Authority to promote space business opportunities.

Trump’s mention of the space program last night was brief, but to the point.

After spelling out how much government money is spent in Huntsville on missile defense and on a new FBI facility, Trump said:   “And you look at NASA.  How ’bout NASA?  Billions of dollars, and Richard Shelby by the way has been a big help on this I have to tell you, a big help.”

Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.  Trump did not mention that his FY2018 budget request for NASA is $561 million less than NASA’s current budget.  Shelby added $437 million to Trump’s request, but his total is still $124 million less than current funding.  The Senate has not yet passed any FY2018 appropriations bills.  (See’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2018 budget request for details.)

Vice President Mike Pence speaking at Kennedy Space Center, July 6, 2017. Screengrab from NASA TV.

Later in the speech, Trump said “[w]e’ve just brought back the National Space Council to restore America’s legacy of leadership in space. … The Council will be chaired by Vice President Pence, who is visiting your NASA facility in Huntsville on Monday to get you out to vote.”

Holding a political rally at a government facility would be highly unusual. Federal government employees other than the President, Vice President and certain other high ranking officials are prohibited from engaging in partisan political activities pursuant to the Hatch Act. Trump may have been conflating a Pence tour of MSFC and a separate political rally elsewhere.

Alabama news outlet reported that Pence would tour MSFC and the Army’s missile research and development center and then rally with Strange in Birmingham. The rally in Birmingham is alternatively reported as Monday night or Tuesday.

Or Pence might not be stopping in Huntsville at all. and the local Huntsville CBS (WHNT-19) and NBC (WAFF-48) affiliates all reported that Pence would be in Huntsville on Monday, then updated their stories to say the trip was cancelled due to a Pence scheduling conflict, and then reported that it was back on again.

The White House has not released Pence’s travel schedule for Monday yet.  Stay tuned.  [UPDATE:  NASA announced late on September 23 that Pence will, in fact, visit MSFC on Monday, September 25.]

Pence has already visited Johnson Space Center and Kennedy Space Center.  During his July 6 visit to KSC, Pence said the first meeting of the National Space Council would take place by the end of summer.  Summer ended yesterday, but no meeting has taken place so far.


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