A conspicuously taped sign on the metallic rocket equipment stated “Do Not Touch,” but perhaps Pence was emboldened by his recent appointment to head the resurrected National Space Council, eliminated by President Bill Clinton.
With Senator Marco Rubio and other officials looking on, presumably too afraid to say anything, Pence made the fateful move in the Kennedy Space Center Orion clean room, which sits inside the greater Vehicle Assembly Building. Here, NASA scientists are piecing together the Orion spacecraft, a module designed to carry astronauts to Mars and then return them home by plopping them down in the ocean. The Orion module is based upon the tried and true design of the 1960s-era Apollo space capsule, which brought astronauts back from the moon, except that the Orion capsule is larger and can carry four astronauts, not three.
The Orion clean room is certainly not one of NASA’s most secure and dust-free rooms, like the High Bay Clean Room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which NASA compares to a hospital’s surgical room. In the High Bay Clean Room, scientists wear sterile suits, gloves, and masks. They’re even sprayed down in an air shower before entering, because even a speck of dust could harm the sensitive equipment inside (the Hubble telescope was built there). In short, the High Bay Clean room is a place even the chair of the National Space Council couldn’t go — even if he or she promised not to touch anything.
The Orion clean room, however, is simply meant to keep particles from the greater Vehicle Assembly Room from floating down onto the Orion gear, so Pence and company were allowed inside.
While touring the building, Pence did have the opportunity to touch other spacecraft components, so this may have engendered the vice president’s sense of comfort and familiarity with the space gear, making his full-hand contact with Orion’s critical tech an afterthought. For instance, while passing through the Operations and Check Out Building, Pence picked up a piece of tile destined for the Orion heat shield, which is intended to withstand temperatures of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit as future astronauts re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.
Pence’s main intention in visiting the Kennedy Space Center was not to touch space gear, but to declare America’s commitment to space and the administration’s desire to put “boots on the face of Mars.” Pence may not have been aware, but NASA’s Space Launch system — which he touched – has been under diligent engineering and planning since 2011, and NASA has been testing its engines and landing module since 2015.
“We will get back to winning in the 21st century and beyond,” said Pence during his visit, referring to the arena of deep-space exploration, which the previous administration had already committed to.
But if he wishes to “win more” in space, this will require far more than executive branch sightseeing and platitude-rich speeches. It will require money. Going to the moon required an incredible investment: In the mid to 1960s, NASA consumed over 4 percent of taxpayer dollars. Today, it’s just half of one percent, so it’s good that no critical gear was harmed during Pence’s Kennedy Space Center visit.