The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An astronaut spoke at the Republican convention, and it was far odder than it seemed

Eileen Collins, the first female pilot and first female commander of a Space Shuttle, speaks on the third day of the 2016 Republican National Convention (EPA/SHAWN THEW)
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After Attorney General Pam Bondi of Florida spoke on the third night of the Republican convention, the room grew dark for a video presentation. Somewhat jarringly, given that it followed Bondi's excoriation of Hillary Clinton, a voice gently told the story of America's space exploration (pointedly noting where it overlapped with host-state Ohio's history). It told the story of the Apollo 11 mission, which landed on the moon on July 20, 1969. It told of Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle mission and it lamented how America's explorations were in the past.

The lights came up. Collins walked out.

"From the moment the first Pilgrims arrived on our shores, Americans have been asking, 'what's next?,'" she said. She referred to the challenge issued by John F. Kennedy to travel to the moon, a spirit that she said had been lost. "[I]n 2011, the space shuttle program ended," she said. "The last time the US launched our own astronauts from our own soil was over 5 years ago. We must do better than that!"

Retired NASA astronaut Col. Eileen Collins called for investment in space exploration during the Republican National Convention July 20. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Andrew Harrer/The Washington Post)

Her prepared remarks concluded, "We need leadership that will challenge every American to ask, 'What’s next?' We need leadership that will make America's space program first again. We need leadership that will make America first again. That leader is Donald Trump."

Those were her prepared remarks, but she didn't say that.

When Collins was named as a speaker, it prompted some bafflement. "She's a low-key, extremely pleasant, not strident, not aggressive personality," the director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute told The Post this week. "So frankly it’s a bit surprising to me she's willing to do this."

It's also odd given Trump's past statements about space travel.

Asked by a young boy last November how he felt about NASA. "Right now, we have bigger problems — you understand that?," Trump replied. "We've got to fix our potholes. You know, we don't exactly have a lot of money." He added that he supported the privatization of space travel, which seems at odds with Collins' point.

Trump also dismissed a question about the funding levels of NASA when asked. "What we spend in NASA should be appropriate for what we are asking them to do," he said. He continued: "Our first priority is to restore a strong economic base to this country. Then, we can have a discussion about spending."

Since the heyday of the Space Age, funding for NASA plummeted and then stayed flat as a function of the federal budget.

In recent years, House Republicans have called for additional cuts to NASA's budget. When the New Horizons craft passed by Pluto last year, we noted that NASA's budget had dropped by half as a function of the federal budget since the moment it was first conceived in 1991. NASA projects are the sorts of things that are often seen as unnecessary fluff that can be trimmed away on Capitol Hill.

So what was that interlude at the convention? If nothing else, it was an appeal to Donald Trump's mantra: Make America great again. The nation has had few greater moments than when those astronauts set foot on the Moon 47 years ago. But it's hard to reconcile that past with Trump's vision of the future.

Perhaps that's why Collins decided to leave off her conclusion.