It’s unusual for NASA to go viral, but that’s what happened this morning: it was hard to avoid a photo of Vice President Mike Pence appearing to make first contact with a piece of NASA equipment — that apparently wasn’t supposed to be touched. It looks to be a covering for the Orion capsule, which NASA is building to take humans into deep space. Fortunately, touching it probably won’t mess up future missions.
Here’s the back story on the photo: yesterday, Pence visited NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where he gave a speech declaring that President Trump will make the space agency great again (but didn’t say how he’d do it). Pence then toured the campus facilities and stopped in the Orion clean room, where pieces of NASA’s capsule are being assembled. During this tour, Pence decided to place his hand on a piece of Orion spaceflight hardware — despite the fact that there was a sign attached to the article that read “DO NOT TOUCH.”
A photographer was on hand to snap the picture, and the internet was on hand to make the jokes.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. You can check out a whole inspired collection here.
So what exactly is Pence touching? One source who works on Orion tells The Verge that the vice president is touching the titanium forward bay cover of the Orion capsule, which is exactly what it sounds like: the thing that goes over the forward bay. That’s on top of the capsule where the parachutes and other important hardware are kept. The forward bay cover is meant to keep this hardware safe from extreme environments during the mission to space. It is then jettisoned before landing just before the parachutes are deployed. Check out a test of this process below:
And while it’s probably best to respect the signs you see in a clean room, touching the cover doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. NASA later confirmed what The Verge had already reported in a statement, that the “do not touch” signs are there just to minimize handling of the hardware. "Procedures require the hardware to be cleaned before tiles are bonded to the spacecraft, so touching the surface is okay,” NASA said in a statement to The Verge. “Otherwise, the hardware would have had a protective cover over it like the thermal heat shield, which was nearby."
Update July 7th, 3:45PM ET: This post has been updated to include a statement from NASA. Pence has since blamed this on peer pressure.