Toyota Tundra Turns Space Shuttle Into Political Football

September 18, 2012

At this point in election season, everything becomes political: the brand of car that candidates drive, the designers of the outfits worn by candidates' wives, the funders of buildings where national conventions are held, everything.

The latest political football? The Space Shuttle Endeavour. 

That's not because Endeavour symbolizes the end of an era in space exploration, or because it represents the loss of thousands of NASA jobs. No, it's because Endeavour is being towed to its final resting place by a Toyota Tundra.

The basics

As we all know, NASA's Space Shuttle program has come to an end. Now, the remaining Shuttles are being sent to museums and other facilities around the country: Atlantis will be on display at Florida's Kennedy Space Center; Discovery went to the Smithsonian; Enterprise is on view in New York City; Explorer will be displayed in Houston.

Endeavor is en route to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. It will arrive at LAX on October 13, then travel 12 miles to its new home.

For the first 11 3/4 miles of that journey, Endeavour will be hauled by a giant, industrial-strength NASA transporter. It'll be a circuitous route -- dubbed Mission 26 -- to show off the shuttle to the public and dodge tight overpasses. (The journey will also require the removal of some 400 trees.)

Then, just before reaching the California Science Center, something unusual will happen. The NASA transporter will disengage, and a humble Toyota Tundra will haul the 300,000-pound Endeavour the last quarter-mile.

Why the Tundra?

As it turns out, the Tundra is an apt choice for this mission. Toyota has had a longstanding partnership with the California Science Center -- in fact, there's already a Tundra on display at the Center, used as part of a demonstration on the physics of leverage. After Endeavour arrives, that Tundra will be replaced by the towing vehicle and remain on view for the forseeable future.

That said, it's obvious that Toyota -- and its ad agency, Saatchi & Saatchi LA -- are milking this event for all the publicity it's worth. In fact, the two have created a special area of the Toyota website dedicated to the "Tundra Endeavour", where Toyota enthusiasts and space fans can learn more about Endeavour, the Tundra, and the planning that's gone into the towing stunt. (Presumably, they'll also be able to watch it happen live.)

Cue the pundits

Many have been critical of the costly, dangerous Space Shuttle program, but now that it's election season, everything associated with NASA has become political fodder. And of course, that includes the make of the vehicle towing Endeavour.

According to Detroit News, the Michigan Republican Party has criticized the Obama administration for allowing a foreign vehicle to pull Endeavour the symbolic quarter-mile to its new home. And while they were at it, they've criticized Obama for "outsourc[ing] our entire space program".

Our take

Like many writers, we do our best to set aside personal beliefs when commenting on stories like this. Our goal isn't to decide the issues for you, the reader, but to give you a fuller picture of the situation, so you can draw your own conclusions.

In this case, the Michigan GOP is correct when it says that the image of a Toyota Tundra towing Endeavour is full of symbolism. It may, in fact, become an iconic image, and the power of that image shouldn't be discounted.

And although the GOP didn't mention it, it's true that Detroit had very close ties to the Space Shuttle program. In fact, Chrysler's Space Division worked closely with NASA to develop early prototypes of a launch system for the Space Shuttle.

But perhaps the Michigan Republican Party didn't feel comfortable mentioning Chrysler because the GOP's candidate for president, Mitt Romney, has said repeatedly that Chrysler (and General Motors) should've been left to go bankrupt during the Great Recession. Awkward.

Bringing up Chrysler would've also been uncomfortable because that might've led the party to suggest that Endeavour be hauled to the California Science Center by a Chrysler vehicle like the Ram.

The problem with that, of course, is that while some Ram trucks are built in Michigan, others are built in Mexico. The Toyota Tundra, however, is built in Texas. Again, awkward.

And although this is far from a space blog, in fairness, we should point out that Obama didn't "outsource[] our entire space program". The Space Shuttle program was 86ed by President Bush in 2004, not long after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Other parts of the space program are alive and well, as a recent Mars landing would imply.

It's true that we've become reliant on others for visits to the International Space Station. However, some of the most interesting progress on that front has come from entrepreneurs like Tesla's head honcho, Elon Musk, whose SpaceX project recently completed a successful mission to the ISS. Isn't that the sort of free-enterprise activity that Republicans espouse?

Bottom line: there are plenty of legitimate complaints that could be lodged about both candidates, both parties, NASA, and Toyota. But in this case, Michigan's GOP missed the ball.

Agree? Disagree? Feel free to punditize your heart out in the comments below.

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