Just over a year ago President Obama visited the Kennedy Space Center to give a major space policy speech about his vision for NASA’s future in space exploration. Yesterday, the president returned to KSC, a visit originally intended to watch the launch of space shuttle Endeavour on its final mission. Although the launch was scrubbed over three hours before launch, the president still made the stop with his family, spending a couple hours at the Cape before he continued on to Miami for a commencement address.
Yesterday’s stopover, though, was a much lower profile visit. There was no speech or other statement to the media; a handful of pool reporters trailed the president for much of his time at the center. The president apparently didn’t intend to use the visit to make any significant statement about his space policy. In a press conference at KSC about the shuttle launch scrub after the president left, KSC director Bob Cabana offered only general comments about what the president said during his visit. “He was extremely supportive of what we were doing,” Cabana said. “I think it was great that he came down today. I think the family really enjoyed the visit.”
Later, Cabana said, “The president supports our spaceflight program. He’s very supportive of what we’re doing,” adding that the president “is supportive of us building a large rocket and crew vehicle to go beyond our home planet” as well as the commercial crew program. “Everybody that he ran into, he thanked them for what we’re doing,” Cabana said. “He enjoyed his tour and seeing all that he saw, and he wants us to keep doing good things.”
Those comments fell short of some expectations for the president to say more about NASA’s future in a region that is facing the impact of thousands of layoffs when the shuttle program ends later this year. “Obama had a parallel purpose for the trip — to ease the political damage of job losses in the space industry and reaffirm his commitment to space exploration,” POLITICO reported. His visit “highlights the need for the president to mend fences in a state stung by proposed cuts to the space program,” The Hill stated. It’s not clear that his visit did much to ease damage and mend fences.
Both articles noted that President Obama isn’t responsible for the decision to cancel the shuttle (which dates back to the unveiling of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004), and POLITICO in particular that his space policy isn’t necessarily what one would expect from this White House: “For a president described by Republicans as a big-government liberal, even a socialist, his space policy has cut against the stereotype, experts say.”
However, the issue of jobs on the Space Coast is something that Republicans are likely to bring up in their 2012 campaigns there against both the president and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who will be running for reelection. On the same day as the president’s visit, the campaign of Republican challenger George LeMieux issued a video lambasting Nelson for allowing what it claims will be 23,000 lost jobs when the shuttle ends. “Florida, we have a problem, and his name is Bill Nelson,” read the graphics on the 42-second video, which features no narration or other comments by LeMieux. “Bill Nelson is letting NASA die on his watch.” The campaign, by contrast, positions LeMieux as “a champion for our space program and a defender of our American exceptionalism,” without offering any specifics about what he would do differently.