CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — President Donald Trump celebrated on Saturday the first launch of American astronauts from U.S. soil in nearly a decade, marveling at the power of the rocket ship and the danger faced by its passengers as they soared into the stratosphere and provided a moment of triumph as the country raged and mourned.
The successful launch provided the president a moment to relish during what has been a difficult week with protests breaking out in several American cities over the death of a black man, George Floyd, while he was in police custody, and the country’s death toll from the coronavirus surpassing 100,000.
“That was a beautiful sight to see and I hope you all enjoyed it,” Trump said shortly after the rocket ship designed and built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company lifted off for a trip to the International Space Station.
Trump addressed the unrest during a speech celebrating the launch, saying Floyd's death was a “grave tragedy" that has filled the country with anger and grief. But he said his administration would stop mob violence, “and we'll stop it cold."
“I stand before you as a friend and ally to every American seeking justice and peace, and I stand before you in firm opposition to anyone exploiting this tragedy to loot, rob, attack and menace," he said. “Healing, not hatred, justice, not chaos, are the missions at hand.”
For Trump, the second time was the charm. He also flew to the Kennedy Space Center on Wednesday before the launch was postponed at the last minute because of bad weather.
“When you hear that sound and you hear all of that roar, you can imagine how dangerous it is,” Trump said. “When you feel the shake — and we’re very far away — but when you feel the shake over here, it’s pretty amazing. Beautiful sight. A beautiful ship, too.”
Asked why he felt it was important to be in Florida for the launch, given all that is going on in the country, Trump said the launch was a “great inspiration" for the country.
“We suffered something that was terrible, it should have never happened. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to be here today. I thought it was so important to be here today," Trump said. “And I think any one of you would say, that was an inspiration to see what we just saw.”
Trump visited the launch control center to congratulate those involved and spoke with Musk, who wore a shirt emblazoned with the launch’s logo. Under Trump, NASA has provided companies with research and development funds to help build their own spacecraft. Ultimately, NASA hopes to rely in part on its commercial partners as it works to send astronauts back to the moon in the next few years, and on to Mars in the 2030s.
Vice President Mike Pence likened the circumstances surrounding Saturday's mission to what the nation experienced when astronauts on Apollo rockets launched during the tumult and clamor of the 1960s. He said the missions were a symbol of national strength and unity.
“And today, as states across the nation take their first steps to reopen and recover from an unprecedented pandemic, and as our nation reels from the tragic death of George Floyd and violent protests of the past few days, I believe with all my heart that millions of Americans today will find the same inspiration and unity of purpose that we found in those days in the 1960s,” Pence said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington contributed to this report.