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Mike Pence touched an off-limits piece of space equipment, and the internet is fuming

Vice President Mike Pence touches a piece of hardware with a warning label "Do Not Touch" next to Kennedy Space Center.
Mike Brown — Reuters

On a visit to the Kennedy Space Center yesterday, Vice President Mike Pence, there to give a speech on the Trump administration’s plans for space exploration, laid his hand on a piece of hardware clearly marked with a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign — and scientists and science writers on the internet had a field day.

NASA said in a statement to Vox that the signs on the titanium forward bay cover for the Orion spacecraft are a “day-to-day reminder,” but that the hardware will be cleaned before it goes into space, “so touching the surface is OK.”

But to many who saw the photo, the moment exemplified the disconnect between the White House and the scientific community that’s steadily been growing wider.

Pence spoke at the space center, the launchpad for many of the most famous space exploration missions in American history, to talk up the Trump administration’s space exploration plans:

As you men and women of NASA know, the American people have never lost our passion to explore space and uncover its secrets. But for nearly 25 years, our government’s commitment seems to have not matched the spirit American people. But I’m here to tell you that as we still enter this new century, we will beat back any disadvantage that our lack of attention has placed, and America will once again lead in space for the benefit and the security of all our people and all of the world.

Part of that plan, Pence said, is to reinstate the National Space Council, a long-dormant executive body that will review and advise future space policy decisions for the nation. There’s also a House proposal in the works to shift the Air Force’s current space missions to a new space-focused branch of the US armed forces.

But Pence’s relationship with the scientific community — including NASA — has been shaky at best, and the reactions to his speech reflected that.

Pence has gone back and forth with his stance on climate change, a key issue for NASA, which tracks global warming’s very measurable effects. On Pence’s original congressional campaign website he outlined his opinion that climate change was a myth, but in a 2016 interview with CNN he said he believes humans have “had some impact on climate.”

President Trump’s most recent budget proposal suggested deep cuts to NASA’s Earth-monitoring programs, as Michael Busch, a planetary astronomer with the SETI Institute, tweeted.

Alan Boyle, a science editor at GeekWire and author of The Case for Pluto, pointed out that the Trump administration has yet to appoint a permanent NASA administrator:

Others were put off by the vice president’s aggressive metaphor of putting “American boots on the face of Mars.” Geophysicist and science writer Mika McKinnon called the VP’s vision representative of a “jackbooted militaristic future in space.”

And while Pence said he was particularly excited about the burgeoning commercial space industry,” space anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan of Memorial University of Newfoundland saw the thrust of his speech as an “awful militarized, space capitalism fantasy.”

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was present for the tour and speech, did not seem impressed:

Pence himself tweeted an apology to NASA on Friday saying Florida Sen. Marco Rubio “dared me to do it.”