Trump Campaign Pulls Ad Featuring Astronauts and Their Families

Trump Campaign Pulls Ad Featuring Astronauts and Their Families

The Trump Campaign took down an ad today that included footage from the launch of Crew Dragon on Saturday and touting what it claimed was the President’s role in the program.  It included video of the two NASA astronauts, both civil servants, as well as their wives and young children waving goodbye. One of the spouses, a former NASA astronaut, strongly objected to use of the video of her and her son for “political propaganda.”

Trump flew to Kennedy Space Center twice to witness the launch of Demo-2, the crewed test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon. The launch was scheduled for May 27, but scrubbed 17 minutes prior to liftoff due to weather. It successfully took off on May 30. Trump was there both times.

NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken were aboard and they now are on the International Space Station.  Both are married to astronauts. Behnken’s wife, Megan McArthur, is still in the astronaut corps and thus a civil servant like her husband. Hurley’s wife, former astronaut  Karen Nyberg, retired from NASA in March.

The Hatch Act prohibits civil servants from taking part in partisan political activities while on duty.

The ad raised questions as to whether showing the astronauts, who definitely were on duty, was a violation of the Hatch Act, but more broadly whether they even knew they were part of the ad.  Nyberg did not.  She tweeted today that she found it “disturbing” that video of her and her son was being used “for political propaganda without my knowledge or consent.”

The ad was removed from the Trump campaign website soon thereafter.  Whether that is permanent or if another version will take its place remains to be seen.  In any case, NASAWatch editor Keith Cowing found that it is already posted on YouTube so continues to be available for viewing.

For many in the space program, the ad was another example of Trump trying to take credit for NASA’s commercial crew program as part of his narrative that he is restoring NASA and American leadership in space.

The commercial crew program was an initiative of the Obama Administration that, in turn, evolved from the commercial cargo program begun by President George W. Bush.  Trump may be in office right now,  but he cannot credibly take credit for it.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, in fact, has repeatedly praised Charlie Bolden, who headed NASA during the Obama Administration, for fighting for years to get a skeptical Congress to fund the program.

The commercial cargo and commercial crew programs are based on public-private partnerships where the companies that build the systems retain ownership and NASA simply buys services.  The Trump Administration has embraced that acquisition model for its Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon. If it works, Trump will be able to justifiably take credit for that.  He also did restore the goal of landing on the Moon, which the Obama Administration eschewed.

Ironically, Obama wanted to bypass the Moon and go directly to Mars.  Although Trump put the Moon back on the pathway to Mars, he has made it clear on a number of occasions that, like Obama, he personally would rather skip the Moon.

After Saturday’s launch, Trump gave a very lengthy speech in KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building that partially addressed the space program and the launch.  As he has done on other occasions, he portrayed his Administration as rescuing NASA from an era where grass grew in “cracks in the concrete runways.”

NASA has 10 field centers plus other installations across the United States. It is quite likely that somewhere there are cracks in runways with grass growing, but the image portrayed is far from reality.  NASA had a very healthy budget when Trump took office — $19.653 billion.  Trump’s first three budget requests were to cut it, but Congress added money instead.

It was only after he submitted his original FY2020 request last year that he sent Congress a supplemental request to boost NASA’s budget. That was to pay for his new directive to accelerate NASA’s plan to get people back on the Moon by four years, in 2024 instead of 2028, so it would happen while he was President if he is reelected.

Congress approved a total for NASA close to the amended budget request, $22.6 billion, but how the money is to be spent has many differences from the proposal because Trump wanted to kill or defer a number of NASA programs as he had in the past.  Congress strongly supports those programs and rebuffs Trump each time.

His request for FY2021 is a 12 percent increase over FY2020 to pay for Artemis, but he is once again proposing cancellation or deferral of those programs. They include two Earth science programs, the next large space telescope, STEM education programs, and a more powerful upper stage for the Space Launch System. This year he also wants to terminate use of an existing airborne telescope, SOFIA.

Exaggeration is part of the norm in politics, but Trump’s portrayal of his role as NASA’s savior has struck a nerve with many in the space community and the campaign ad was another blow.  A petition calling for the ad to be withdrawn and to stop “politicizing SpaceX and NASA accomplishments” had more than 5,700 signatures at press time.

Perhaps more importantly are the questions of whether it violates the Hatch Act by using civil servants performing their duties for political purposes or infringes on the rights of family members. NASA also has a policy requiring that permission be obtained for using video of identifiable persons for commercial purposes: “if a recognizable person, or talent (e.g., an astronaut or a noted personality engaged to narrate a film) appears in NASA material, use for commercial purposes may infringe a right of privacy or publicity. Permission should be obtained from the recognizable person or talent if the proposed use of the NASA material could be viewed as a commercial exploitation of that person.”

Whether Google (which owns YouTube) or anyone else challenges whoever posted it on YouTube will be interesting to watch.

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