At a time of bad news and sagging approval ratings, a meeting between President Barack Obama and the crew of Apollo 11 to mark the 45th anniversary of the moon landing might seem like a welcome change -- but instead became a story about the White House's lack of transparency.
The White House Correspondents Association made a formal complaint to White House press secretary Josh Earnest asking why the meeting was closed to reporters and TV cameras, and only open to still photographers for less than a minute.
US President Barack Obama meets with Apollo 11 representatives including Michael Collins (L) and Buzz Aldrin (2nd L) on the 45th anniversary of the first mission to land on the Moon, on July 22, 2014 in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN MANDEL
"On behalf of the correspondents association I just want to lodge a formal complaint about Apollo 11 event today," WHCA board member Major Garrett, a CBS News reporter said during the briefing. "The astronauts were among the most visibly televised national heroes this country has ever known. That entire program is financed by the American taxpayer. The stills presentation of that, limits to television coverage of that event, we believe that that is a classic definition of something that should have the broadest press coverage imaginable."
Earnest responded,"Understood. These are legitimate American heroes. On that, you and I can agree."
Later in the briefing, ABC News reporter Jonathan Karl asked why the White House has such "intense secrecy" for this event.
“It's merely a scheduling matter,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said. Obama was signing a bill on job training before departing for three days of fundraising on the west coast.
While celebrating a uniquely American feat of putting the first men on the moon would seem non-controversial, it actually tapped into some controversial matters – the administration's policy on space exploration and the relationship with Russia amidst the investigation into the downed Malaysian jet and the conflict in Ukraine.
Obama met with Carol Armstrong, widow of Neil Armstrong, along with Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.
“The United States of America is stronger today thanks to the vision of President Kennedy, who set us on a course for the moon, the courage of Neil, Buzz, and Michael, who made the journey, and the spirit of service of all who’ve worked not only on the Apollo program, but who’ve dared to push the very boundaries of space and scientific discovery for all humankind,” Obama said in a statement issued after the press briefing.
Before his death in 2012, Armstrong, the first astronaut to step on the moon's surface, was highly critical of the Obama administration's decision to end the shuttle program before his death in 2012.
"We will have no American access to, and return from, low Earth orbit and the International Space Station for an unpredictable length of time in the future," Armstrong told the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology in 2011. “For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable.”
Asked if Armstrong's comments were one of the reason for abbreviating the historic anniversary event. Earnest responded, “absolutely not.”
“The president invited the crew members of Apollo 11 to the White House to honor their contribution to space exploration and to the innovation in the field of science,” Earnest said. “It was a genuine honor for the president to have them here today and he's proud about the fact that they chose to come. We are proud of the policy that this president has put in place to take our space program to the next level and we are optimistic about the future of the space program.”
Over the weekend, former NASA administrator Michael Griffin told ABC News that U.S. space exploration is too reliant on Russia at a time of chilled relations between the two countries.
“We’re in a hostage situation,” Griffin said. “Russia can decide that no more U.S. astronauts will launch to the International Space Station and that’s not a position that I want our nation to be in.”
Earnest doesn't see it the same way.
“The relationship between the United States and Russia is multi-faceted,” Earnest said. “We certainly do cooperate closely with the Russians when it comes to our space program.”
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