CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — For President Trump, it promised to be the ultimate split-screen day. Even as the United States reached the grim milestone on Wednesday of 100,000 dead from the coronavirus pandemic, the nation was set to mark a trailblazing return to human spaceflight from American soil.
There was no question which story line Mr. Trump preferred. Leaving behind coronavirus meetings, he flew to Florida in hopes of watching the first launch of NASA astronauts into orbit from the United States in nearly a decade. Nothing would say America is back with more verve than a rocket’s red glare.
There was a fair bit of nail biting in the White House about whether the launch would go off on schedule, but when the president landed, it was still scheduled for 4:33 p.m. Eastern. Mr. Trump headed to the Kennedy Space Center to tour the facilities while he waited, but 16 minutes before liftoff, the launch was scrubbed, undermining, for now, the narrative of recovery the president had been pitching after months of national lockdown.
Mr. Trump, accompanied by the first lady, Melania Trump, made no mention of the death toll as he left Washington, just as he has largely avoided any discussion of those killed by the virus. But before taking off, he erupted on Twitter at those who have criticized his administration’s initial response to the pandemic.
“The Radical Left Lamestream Media, together with their partner, the Do Nothing Democrats, are trying to spread a new narrative that President Trump was slow in reacting to Covid 19,” he wrote, referring to himself in the third person. “Wrong, I was very fast, even doing the Ban on China long before anybody thought necessary!”
He made no mention of studies that have shown that tens of thousands of people would have been saved had the United States imposed quarantines and social distancing measures even a week or two earlier.
The juxtaposition of the two milestones — the toll of the pandemic and the promise of a new space future — was a matter of happenstance, but they intersected in other ways as well. NASA was forced to put in place special measures to ensure that the astronauts did not come down with the virus or take it with them to the International Space Station, and it told space fans who would normally turn out in large numbers to watch such an event to stay home and instead tune in online.
The main author of the launch was Elon Musk, the Tesla magnate who founded SpaceX and turned it from a pipe dream into a real force in the space world. The astronauts were ferried to the launchpad in a NASA-branded Tesla built by Mr. Musk’s company, then boarded a Crew Dragon spacecraft built by Mr. Musk’s other company mounted atop one of his Falcon 9 rockets.
Mr. Musk has also been a prominent voice against the economic restrictions imposed to curb the coronavirus, defying California authorities who told him to keep his Tesla plant closed to protect workers against spreading the virus. Mr. Trump two weeks ago publicly backed Mr. Musk in his fight with the state’s Democratic leaders.
“California should let Tesla & @elonmusk open the plant, NOW,” the president wrote at the time. “It can be done Fast & Safely!”
Since Apollo, presidents have embraced the space program as a manifestation of the American ideal, a rockets-roaring, television-friendly expression of national determination, ingenuity and spirit of adventure. But only some occupants of the Oval Office backed that up with a real commitment of political will and resources, resulting in a stutter-step journey that has seen impressive progress at times even as humanity has remained restricted to low-earth orbit for nearly 50 years.
Mr. Trump is the latest to promise to end that, embracing an ambitious goal of returning to the moon as a way station for an eventual mission to Mars. While demonstrating no particular affinity for the science or engineering of the enterprise, he has eagerly associated himself with the image of space heroism, inviting Apollo 11 moon-walker Buzz Aldrin to his State of the Union address and creating a new Space Force within the military. Only two weeks ago, he happily displayed the new Space Force flag during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office.
“Trump is a bit of a spaceflight fan, of course,” said Roger D. Launius, a former NASA historian. But, he added: “I’m not sure how much Trump desires to make his moon landing announcement a reality. There is not much of a reflection of this initiative in the budgets he has proposed.”
Nor has Congress jumped on board. “That’s not a partisan issue,” Mr. Launius said. “Neither party seems to be lining up to support it.”
Attending a launch in person has always been a tough decision for presidents. They would happily immerse themselves in the glory of a landmark launch, but they recognize the risks of being on hand if something were to go wrong. As a result, only two sitting presidents have personally attended one. President Richard M. Nixon was there when Apollo 12 took off, and President Bill Clinton witnessed the astronaut and future senator John Glenn’s return to space aboard the shuttle.
Lyndon B. Johnson, who did more for the space program than any president other than perhaps John F. Kennedy, attended the historic Apollo 11 launch as a private citizen, only months after leaving office. Otherwise, presidents tend to send their vice presidents. Spiro Agnew witnessed four Apollo launches.
While Mr. Trump was happy to connect himself with Wednesday’s scheduled launch, it has its origins under two previous presidents. After the Columbia space shuttle accident, President George W. Bush ordered an end to the shuttle program and the development of new rockets, while turning to the private sector for cargo launches. President Barack Obama canceled Mr. Bush’s rocket program, judging it too expensive, but signed contracts with SpaceX and other private firms to transport crews to space themselves.
Dava J. Newman, a former deputy NASA administrator under Mr. Obama who now teaches at the M.I.T., said the achievement of Wednesday’s launch was “really a result of all of the great work over the past decade across multiple administrations and Congresses.”