Scott Kelly at SOTU
NASA astronaut Scott Kelly receives a standing ovation after President Barack Obama mentioned his upcoming year-long mission to the International Space Station at the State of the Union on Jan. 20. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Every year, the space community tunes into the State of the Union speech to see what the President might say about space in the address. And, nearly every year, those people are disappointed by the end of the speech, as space gets crowded out by other domestic and foreign policy priorities.

This year, however, was different. In two separate portions of the hour-long speech, President Barack Obama mentioned NASA and its programs, both to explore the solar system and to study Earth. Obama offered no new initiatives for the space agency in the address, but that space was mentioned at all was a pleasant surprise to many.

The first mention of the space agency came about halfway into the address, where the president referenced the Dec. 5 test flight of NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the upcoming launch of NASA astronaut Scott Kelly — in the audience as a guest of First Lady Michelle Obama — on a one-year mission at the International Space Station:

I want Americans to win the race for the kinds of discoveries that unleash new jobs: converting sunlight into liquid fuel; creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kids again; pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay. Last month, we launched a new spacecraft as part of a re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars. And in two months, to prepare us for those missions, Scott Kelly will begin a year-long stay in space. So, good luck, Captain. Make sure to Instagram it. We’re proud of you.

Kelly got a standing ovation at the conclusion of that passage. (Obama’s final line, “We’re proud of you,” was apparently ad-libbed, as it did not appear in the prepared remarks distributed just before the speech began.)

Obama’s statement about “pushing out into the solar system not just to visit, but to stay” harkens back to a line in his speech at the Kennedy Space Center in April 2010 where he discussed his plans for NASA. “Our goal is the capacity for people to work and learn and operate and live safely beyond the Earth for extended periods of time, ultimately in ways that are more sustainable and even indefinite,” he said in that speech. That 2010 passage has been cited in some recent presentations by NASA officials, including at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council last week at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

Later in the speech, Obama mentioned NASA in passing during a discussion about climate change:

2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century. I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t 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 and conflict and hunger around the globe.

Obama’s references to space in the State of the Union speech generated a range of online reactions, from humorous to critical. Some, like former NASA official Alan Ladwig, were, well, excited:

Scott Kelly gets his call out by POTUS in #SOTU. Space Advocates around the country get stiff nipples!

— Alan Ladwig (@SpaceArtAl) January 21, 2015

Others, though, noted there were no new initiatives, or funding, attached to the space references in the speech:

The shoutout to Scott Kelly in SOTU was nice, but no one should get their hopes up. NASA purchasing power has been flat, at best, for years.

— Justin Kugler (@phalanx) January 21, 2015

Former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver wryly wondered just what spacecraft Obama was referring to in his speech:

Dragon perhaps? MT: @DavidWeaver: We launched a spacecraft as part of re-energized space program that will send American astronauts to Mars

— Lori Garver (@Lori_Garver) January 21, 2015

Given that the speech took place the same day that SpaceX announced a billion-dollar investment from Google and Fidelity, some seemed to hedge their bets:

Who’s going to get us to Mars? Obama or @elonmusk ?

— Katherine Mangu-Ward (@kmanguward) January 21, 2015

Obama’s request to Kelly to “Make sure to Instagram it” struck some people as odd:

“Godspeed, John Glenn.” > “Good luck, Captain. Be sure to Instagram it.”

— delrayser (@delrayser) January 21, 2015

However, after the speech, Kelly dusted off his Instagram account and posted a photo of him posing with another guest of Obama, Alan Gross, who was freed by the Cuban government in December.

And Jon Huntsman, former governor of Utah and ambassador to China who unsuccessfully ran for the Republican nomination for President in 2012, saw another use entirely for Mars exploration:

Please send congress to Mars. Save the American people! #SOTU

— Jon Huntsman (@JonHuntsman) January 21, 2015

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...