NASA insists there was no “dirty trick” behind a photo of John Kerry in a protective spacesuit, which is being compared to the unflattering image that helped tank another Massachusetts Democratic presidential nominee in 1988.

Sen. John Kerry (NASA photo)

The senator’s campaign aides allege the pictures were not supposed to be released publicly, but NASA spokesman Bill Johnson says that’s not true, reports Florida Today.

Johnson claims the campaign asked that processing of images of the up-close tour of the Discovery space shuttle Monday be expedited so reporters could have them.

Also, government photographers routinely snap pictures of visiting dignitaries, the space agency points out.

Kerry is shown wearing one of NASA’s head-to-toe protective suits, or “bunny suits,” at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Kerry, along with Sens. John Glenn of Ohio and Bill Nelson of Florida, were required to wear the suits to tour the Discovery space shuttle due to a recent launch.

A handful of the images had been posted on the Kennedy Space Center’s website, but NASA’s general counsel ordered the images removed.

While the pictures were absent for part of today, the photos are now viewable once again.

Tank photo of Dukakis was ridiculed in 1988 campaign

It was a photograph of former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis in a tank that helped sink his presidential bid.

Late-night comedians already have had fun with the picture, and Republicans have e-mailed it to thousands of supporters under the caption “Earth to Kerry.”

The headline on the front page of the Boston Herald read, “Bubble Boy.”

To enter the orbiter and the cockpit area where commanders sit, Kerry, Glenn and Nelson had to go through a “white room,” and don the special suits. Media cameras were not allowed in, but NASA later released its own photographs.

The Kerry campaign drew its own parallel of the spacesuit picture with Bush’s May 1, 2003, landing on an aircraft carrier in a flight suit to declare an end to combat operations in Iraq in front of a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.” More than 750 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since that day and U.S. forces are plagued by violence.

Bush in flight suit after successful trap on USS Lincoln (U.S. Navy)

In addition, Kerry aides reportedly began sharing pictures of Bush wearing matching kimonos with Australian Prime Minister John Howard during a summit, picking his nose at a baseball game and leading a cheer at Yale.

“My hunch is that the brilliant Republicans who put George Bush in a flight suit to strut around an aircraft carrier won’t get very far giving advice to NASA and John Glenn about the kinds of coveralls to wear on the Discovery,” Kerry spokesman David Wade said of the first American to orbit Earth.

John Kerry in anti-contamination suit at Kennedy Space Center this week (NASA photo)

Asked the significance of the photo of Kerry in the anti-contamination suit, Republican chairman Ed Gillespie smiled broadly and said, “We just thought it was a great photo.”

“The Bush administration is scrambling to divert attention from its failed Iraq policy,” responded Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign.

Chris Heinz, the 31-year-old son of Teresa Heinz Kerry, said of the NASA photo: “He’s smart enough to be an astronaut. I think that’s a good place to start.”

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