By KEVIN FREKING and AAMER MADHANI Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump is hoping the first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly a decade will give the nation’s spirit a boost after months of battling the coronavirus.
Amid uncertainty about whether the weather would allow for liftoff, Trump departed Washington for the Florida coast to mark the return of NASA astronaut launches from the U.S. — and the first attempt by a private company.
It’s the latest visit to an important 2020 battleground state as the president emerges from his White House bubble and expands his travel itinerary. Earlier this month, Trump visited Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan, all states he narrowly won in 2016.
Trump used those trips to highlight the manufacturing of ventilators and personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves, but also to mock Joe Biden, his Democratic rival for the presidency, and the Obama administration.
The Florida trip could give Trump a chance to celebrate a moment of American achievement and, at least momentarily, deflect attention from the pandemic that’s exacted an enormous toll on the nation’s health and economy. He was also expected to highlight his efforts to boost NASA funding in a bid to return American astronauts to the moon by 2024, indirectly benefiting Florida-based companies competing for NASA’s business.
Trump’s prospects for reelection depend greatly upon winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes. The state went his way by 1.2 percentage points in 2016. Four years earlier, Democrat Barack Obama won it by just 0.9 percentage points.
Trump is encouraging states to loosen restrictions on economic activity put into place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. But many older people are worried about whether steps to improve the economy will endanger them.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month found older Florida voters divided on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, with 47% saying they approved and 50% disapproving. Eighty-four percent of older people said they are at least somewhat concerned that they or someone they know will be infected with the coronavirus, including 53% who said they were very concerned.
The two astronauts who will test drive SpaceX’s brand new rocketship are retired Marine Col. Doug Hurley, 53, who will be in charge of launch and landing, while Air Force Col. Bob Behnken, 49, a mechanical engineer with six spacewalks on his resume, will oversee rendezvous and docking at the International Space Station.
Vice President Mike Pence, who traveled to Florida ahead of Trump for the launch, met briefly with the astronauts’ family. Pence, who wore a face mask, was also on hand to cheer Hurley and Behnken before they made their way from Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Facility to the launch pad hours before the scheduled liftoff. Thunder could be heard in the distance before the astronauts were loaded up in Teslas with NASA-logos for the nine-mile ride to the launch pad.
With American shuttles no longer in use, the United States has had to rely on Russia for rides to the International Space Station. SpaceX would be the first private company to put astronauts in orbit, something achieved by just three countries — Russia, the U.S. and China.
The astronauts were scheduled to blast off at 4:33 p.m. EDT from launch pad 39A, the same one the Apollo astronauts used to get to the moon.
Madhani reported from Chicago.