Marrying gentle prose and hardball politics, Vice President George Bush welcomed the spaceship Discovery’s five astronauts home to Earth Monday, heralding all as heroes who restored faith in America’s once pre-eminent space program.
“When heroes return to a grateful nation, those that welcome them often strain to come up with words to equal their deeds,” Bush said in remarks at Edwards Air Force Base, where he introduced the crew to euphoric NASA workers at a formal welcoming ceremony.
Special Note of Thanks
“But in this case, that isn’t possible, and all we can say, from our hearts, is thank you.
“Thank you for putting America back in space. Thank you for reminding us that’s where we belong. Thank you for all that unheralded hard work. And thank you, thank you, for your courage.”
Bush, President Reagan’s emissary to the grieving families of the Challenger crew members in the hours after that spacecraft’s January, 1986, explosion, also paid homage to the seven who perished in America’s worst space-related accident.
“And, now, what was once remembered in sadness is now relived in triumph,” Bush declared. “I can’t help but think that just as you had millions cheering for you from below--you had seven departed friends, who will never be forgotten, cheering you from above.”
Bush’s words capped a victorious effort to command center stage for the vice president in what was arguably the long presidential campaign’s premier photo opportunity.
Later, at a campaign rally in the Northern California town of Redding, Bush vowed that as President, he would commit the nation to an operational, manned space station by 1996.
First Mention of Timetable
Bush previously had not set a timetable for development of a working station, although he has indicated his support. He did not, on Monday, specify the station’s cost nor how it would be funded.
He also pledged to create a National Space Council that would assess space operations and work for international cooperation in space. The council would be chaired by his vice president, Bush said.
The homecoming of the astronauts, their mission a salve for the nation’s Challenger wounds, evoked pride, patriotism and success, three notions that any candidate likes to exploit--particularly one month before an election.
And Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, was able to call upon the connections of the incumbency for a flag-waving political display, emotional and newsworthy enough to make Democrats cringe. But it was hardly a routine vice presidential appearance for Bush--aides said he has never before attended a blast-off or landing of a space shuttle since the program began in 1981, nor has he been a particular advocate of space travel.
Bush’s mere presence at the shuttle landing, in fact, was cause for open chagrin by some officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. At a press conference Sunday, Bill Williams, the commander of the recovery convoy that met the shuttle, said the vice president’s visit came “at a bad time” and added that he wished NASA had one successful landing under its belt before such a visit.
Nevertheless, Bush not only appeared at the landing but he was situated as the first non-NASA employee to greet the grounded space fliers.
With his wife, Barbara, NASA officials and California Gov. George Deukmejian, Bush watched the shuttle’s dramatic landing from the grandstands in the center of the Rogers Dry Lake bed, which runway 17--the space shuttle’s landing strip--bisects.
Out of sight of the thousands of visitors who camped outside the gates of the Air Force base--but in view of television cameras--Bush cheered excitedly as the spacecraft touched earth. He stood at stiff attention as the Star Spangled Banner blared from NASA’s public address system when Discovery braked to a halt.
“Wonderful, great,” Bush hollered to reporters. “It was a great day for our country.”
Bush traveled by motorcade to Edwards’ control center so he could congratulate NASA workers, then moved onto the lake bed where recovery teams had determined that Discovery’s potentially dangerous fumes posed no risk.
Shortly after Bush, NASA Administrator James C. Fletcher and his deputy, Rear Adm. Richard H. Truly, stationed themselves at the foot of a ramp leading to Discovery’s doors, the five astronauts sauntered outside the craft for the first time, waving a 5-by-8-foot American flag.
Bush shook each man’s hand, and an emotional Truly embraced each in a bear hug.
In what NASA officials described as a rare occurrence, about 40 reporters from the television networks and national news organizations were allowed onto the lake bed to record the greeting.
Normally, NASA crews film the arrival and civilians are kept more than a mile from the landing site, outside a safety zone, according to NASA spokesman Dave Drachlis.
This time, a flatbed truck bearing the news crews parked 125 feet from Discovery, changing position three times in search of the best Bush photo angle.
“This is very unusual,” Drachlis said. Campaign officials said the placement was the result of negotiations between the agency and Bush’s office.
After he greeted the astronauts, Bush joined them for a filmed inspection of the ship’s underbelly. As the six men finished walking around the shuttle, Bush’s chief of staff, Craig Fuller, spoke to shuttle commander Frederick H. Hauck and appeared to motion him toward the plane’s nose.
Hauck, the other astronauts and Bush walked to the nose, formed a line--and raised their thumbs in victory. Then the men saluted Bush and he trotted to his limousine, its form quickly vanishing in a cloud of lake-bed dust.
Bush’s welcoming speech, at an afternoon ceremony, was over in a brief few minutes and included one plainly political note: He thanked “all the quiet people” at NASA, a take-off on his convention speech reference to himself as a quiet man who could hear the concerns of quiet people.