This morning, President Donald Trump placed a long-distance call to NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer, who are both currently on board the International Space Station. The point of the chat was to congratulate Whitson on breaking the record for spending more cumulative hours in space than any other American. But the call also touched on other topics, such as ways to encourage more women to pursue STEM careers, as well as sending people to Mars someday.
Given Trump’s questions about Mars, it seems as if the president has forgotten that he’s ultimately in charge of space policy. One of his queries to Whitson revolved around when a crewed mission to Mars would take place: “Tell me: Mars. What do you see a [sic] timing for actually sending humans to Mars?” he asked. “Is there a schedule, and when would you see that happening?” Of course, Trump signed a bill last month telling NASA exactly when the agency needs to send a crewed mission to Mars. It was something that Whitson reminded him of: “Well I think as your bill directed, it’ll be approximately in the 2030s.” She also reminded him that we’re building a new giant rocket, the Space Launch System, for that specific purpose.
“Well we want to try to do it during my first term or at worst during my second term,” responded Trump. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”
The first flight of the SLS isn’t supposed to take place until 2018 at the absolute earliest (and there are many doubts about that). And if does take place in 2018, it’ll be an uncrewed flight around the Moon. There’s talk of putting people on the first flight of the SLS, but if that happens, the flight probably won’t take place until 2019 at the earliest. That flight would also be a trip around the Moon. So a very substantial budget increase would need to happen for an expedited trip to Mars.
Later on in the interview, Mars came up again when Trump asked, “What is next for Americans in space?” He then quickly added he’s very proud of the fact that he just signed a bill that commits NASA to send astronauts to Mars, though we’ll be doing it a lot sooner, he claimed. In a way, he answered his own question.
To close, Trump asked who was ready to go to Mars? Naturally, all the astronauts raised their hands.
Other than his statements on Mars, Trump provided very little indication of what we could see for the future of space policy. He did mention that space could play an even larger role in the military, though. “There’s tremendous military application in space,” he said. “We’re rebuilding our military like never before. We’re ordering equipment, and we’re going to have the strongest military we’ve ever had. The strongest military that the world has ever and there’s no time when we need it more.” Trump has proposed increasing the military’s budget to $639 billion for fiscal year 2018; meanwhile he has proposed cutting NASA’s budget slightly to $19.1 billion for the same year.
Of course, words don’t directly translate to policy, so it remains to be seen exactly what his statements today mean or whether a Mars mission will be drastically pushed up. Or if that’s even possible.