Obama state of the union

Credit: Whitehouse.gov

President Obama made a rare shout-out to space in Tuesday’s State of the Union Address, referencing NASA’s recent Orion capsule launch and addressing astronaut Scott Kelly in the audience at the Capitol.

“Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars,” Obama said, referring to the December 5 test flight that sent the new Orion capsule on an unmanned trip farther than any human-rated spacecraft has gone in 40 years. That vehicle is designed to take crews out to deep space—to visit an asteroid and eventually on to the Red Planet. Its first manned mission is slated for 2021.

In the meantime, NASA is aiming to lay the groundwork for Mars missions by keeping its astronauts on the International Space Station for longer stretches than ever before. “In two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space,” Obama said. “So, good luck, Captain—and make sure to Instagram it. I’m proud of you.”

His comment received a notably long clap, attracting rare bipartisan applause in the divided chamber. It also signaled that NASA ranks high in the president’s agenda. In past years, the agency has rarely received a mention during State of the Unions, especially when the economy was struggling.

Kelly and his Russian crew mate Mikhail Kornienko plan to launch on March 27 for a full turn around the sun aboard the space station. NASA will be studying how their bodies adapt to such a long stay in weightlessness in order to prepare crews for the months-long journey to Mars. NASA scientists will compare Kelly’s health, in particular, to that of his identical twin brother, Mark Kelly, also a former astronaut, who will be staying on Earth for the same time period.

Obama’s mention of Kelly’s mission wasn’t the last time the president referred to NASA in his address yesterday; later on, he listed the agency among trusted organizations he urged Congress to heed. “I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities,” Obama said. “The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we'll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe.”