Eileen Collins didn’t explicitly endorse Donald Trump when she spoke at the RNC Wednesday evening. Collins apparently went off the prompter at the end of her speech and left off the line “That leader is Donald Trump.” I find that slightly comforting, but I don’t think it was a masterful subversion by Collins or that it does much to undermine the fact that she spoke at the convention in the first place, which amounts to a tacit endorsement of the nominee.
The questions of whether Collins was really endorsing Trump and how a lauded “woman first” could “betray” those who looked to her as a role model were at the heart of many discussions about Collins’ speech when it was first announced last week. Some people were evidently shocked that an astronaut, those supposed champions of science and reason, would speak before a party so stubbornly committed to anti-science policy and ideology. But it shouldn’t really surprise anyone that a career military pilot--not, as some have mistakenly identified her, a scientist--would have conservative politics. In fact, Collins would fit in well with the astronauts of the 60s, who were the most visible members of an organization that was largely politically conservative and whose officials in fact actively and publicly derided liberal and countercultural politics. Her remarks, too, could have come right from the NASA Office of Public Relations as it existed in 1969, when the rhetorical stand-ins of exploration and patriotism had taken over for the hysterical motivations of atomic fear and rabid anti-communism in public justifications for the space program.
Both Collins’ remarks and the saccharine video tribute to Apollo 11 that preceded them represent a kind of sterilized, apolitical vision of space exploration that insists that the whole thing got going after a “leadership challenge” fell out of the president’s face, unprompted, one day in 1961. In addition to the very tenuous grasp on the basic sequence of events it depicts, the video contains no historical context of any kind. Following the Wright brothers’ success at Kitty Hawk, “before we knew it,” America was in the race for space. Leaving aside the fact that there were two world wars between the first flight in Ohio and the formation of NASA in 1958, there is no mention at all of the Cold War or the Soviet Union or really any possible causes of the space race. Even the launch of Sputnik, which marked what is widely accepted to be the beginning of the space race, is left out of the video to leave room for lots of pandering to Ohioans and lots of empty rhetoric about “unbridled patriotism” and exploration “inspired by those starlit skies.”
My favorite moment of the video is when the narrator announces that in the midst of all this patriotism and stars, “Soon brave women emerged,” in a manner, I’m assuming, much like those 17-year cicadas, clawing their way up through the dirt and drowning out all sound with their shrill cries. “Brave women” didn’t “emerge” from anywhere--they were standing outside the strict borders of the scientific and technical establishment demanding to be let in from the very beginning. This tidy encapsulation of the entomological life-cycle of the “woman first” was meant as an introduction for Eileen Collins, who repeated much of the video’s vague, nationalist cliches and heady pleas to make America great again-- you know, like it was when it was stockpiling nuclear weapons and persecuting suspected communists and fighting an unwinnable and unjustified war in Southeast Asia.
The content of Collins’ speech is, for the most part, innocuous and so nonspecific as to be essentially meaningless, but there is some very real danger in the way that the RNC has leveraged both Collins herself and the idea of the moon landing as a stand-in for a coherent and rational position on science and technology. The real core message of both the video and of Collins’ speech is that America is great when we do what the president says with unprecedented fervor, and with a blank check from Congress. The idea of a leadership challenge, couched in the language of exploration and frontier-conquering, is a call to Americans to make themselves amenable to the wishes of the executive, to do whatever is asked of them in this project of making America great.
The space program, and the moon landing in particular, is leveraged in political rhetoric all the time--think of every far-fetched policy initiative that has been billed as a “moon shot,” or every time Aaron Sorkin includes a reference to Apollo 11 in a stirring motivational speech in The West Wing. In the context of a speech given at the event that nominates a candidate for president of the United States, however, the reference comes off less as an abstract challenge to “do great things” and more of an admonition to “do what you are told.” It’s true that Americans, if given enough federal funding and enough blind loyalty to the idea of a national threat, will in fact do anything you tell them to--the Apollo program is of course the best and brightest example of this. Even better, NASA is on its face a civilian agency, so these brave pioneers didn’t even have to be ordered by their Commander in Chief. The president federalized the scientific and technical establishment to win a proxy war against the Soviet Union and all it took was $25 billion dollars and a few speeches. What else could a president accomplish with that kind of leverage? Of course the space program is wielded this way, an example of staggering executive power and influence cloaked in the nostalgia of American know-how and can-doism that has been scrubbed clean of history and politics.
I don’t care if Eileen Collins is a Republican, and in the long run, I wouldn’t have cared if she had actually endorsed Trump. What does bother me is how good the Republicans are at strategically deploying the abstract idealism of the space program, which is fostered by a very limited public understanding of its history. Even more troubling is the way they have cynically packaged this misleading and dangerous rhetoric in the person of the “female first,” as a way to signal to women, who have so few figures to look up to anyway, that despite having the most anti-choice platform of all time, the Republican party has captured our childhood heroes. And if we want them back, we have to do what Trump says, or we’ll never see them go to space again. Man, fuck this election.