Does Donald Trump remember that space bill he signed?
I think President Trump was joking. Then again, if he doesn’t seem to understand NATO, climate change or even the US constitution, then why would I expect him to know what NASA is up to? It’s literally rocket science, and maybe it was naive of me to think that Trump might have some memory of the bill that he signed just over a month ago that pledged work towards a manned Mars mission in the 2030s. Or maybe he just didn’t read it. He was probably joking, but it’s really hard to tell.
Either way, here’s what happened. The president was on a call to the International Space Station, congratulating Peggy Whitson on breaking the record for the longest (non-continuous) period spent in space by an American astronaut – 534 days and counting. Trump congratulated her on her achievement on behalf of America and “frankly, on behalf of the world” (who probably weren’t consulted on this, given Gennady Padalka still has a commanding lead with 879 days), before getting into the nuts and bolts of a Mars mission. “Tell me: Mars. What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule, and when would you see that happening?” Trump asked.
It’s probably my imagination, but the delay between speech on Earth and response from ISS seemed even longer than usual. I thought I heard some crickets chirp. “Well, I think as your bill directed, it’ll be approximately in the 2030s,” Whitson eventually responded diplomatically. “As I mentioned, we actually are building hardware to test the new heavy launch vehicle, and this vehicle will take us further than we’ve ever been away from this planet.”
“Unfortunately, space flight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will require some international cooperation to get it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful – just because it’s a very expensive endeavor,” she added. “But it’s so worthwhile doing.”
Trump’s response to this was… quite something. “Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?” To be fair, he did say it with a smile – and in any case, Whitson and her colleague Jack Fischer both laughed along. “We’ll do our best,” Whitson replied.
Hopefully Trump doesn’t see this as an example of his brilliant negotiation speeding things along. To be absolutely clear, there’s a reason NASA is looking at the 2030s: getting to Mars is super-tough for all kinds of reasons. Trump’s first term is due to end in 2020, and any (extremely) hypothetical second term would come to an end in 2024. Nobody is ready to send humans to Mars yet – even the far less cautious SpaceX is pinning hopes on a 2022 mission, which is, to put it mildly, extremely ambitious. Any Mars mission attempted before that would be very much a one-way ticket, and not the kind of adventure anyone would wish on another human being.