After years of the White House pushing NASA’s human exploration programs back toward the lunar surface, President Trump tweeted today that the space agency should not be focused on the Moon, but instead on Mars, defense, and science.
The tweet makes little sense, given that NASA’s main focus throughout the Trump administration has been sending people back to the Moon. The first space policy directive that Trump signed was an order for NASA to send people back to the Moon, and in March, Vice President Mike Pence called on NASA to expedite its lunar return by “any means necessary” — a challenge that supposedly came from the president. Last month, Trump even requested an additional $1.6 billion in his budget, so that NASA could go back to the Moon.
In response to all of this pressure from the White House, NASA has branded its big lunar return “Artemis,” claiming that the agency will send the first woman to the Moon through the program. As part of the initiative, NASA plans to build a new space station around the Moon, where future astronauts can travel to and from the lunar surface. The space agency recently awarded a contract to a commercial company to start building parts of the lunar space station, called Gateway, and it soon plans to select companies to build lunar landers that can carry humans to the Moon.
Trump’s tweet is also confusing, as he claims that the Moon is “a part” of Mars. It’s possible that Trump may be referring to a common refrain from NASA that the Moon is a proving ground for Mars exploration. Many engineers and scientists argue that the lunar surface is a great place to test out technologies that will be needed to send humans to the Red Planet in the long run.
It’s unclear why Trump tweeted this today. However, just this morning NASA announced that it is opening up the International Space Station to more commercial business opportunities, and NASA executives have been doing interviews on that topic, as well as commenting on the space agency’s Moon plans. Just this afternoon, NASA’s chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit, went on Fox Business, a channel Trump watches, and talked about the agency’s Moon plans.
Despite all this confusion, the White House seems to be standing behind Trump’s tweet. “Our administration’s goal has always been to get to Mars,” a White House official said in a statement to The Verge. “We have asked Congress for additional resources to get to the Moon by 2024, which will enable us to get to Mars roughly a decade after creating a sustainable presence on the lunar surface. Under POTUS, America is leading again in space.” And this afternoon, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted in favor of NASA’s Mars missions.
NASA is currently gearing up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing in July. The Verge reached out to NASA for comment and will update when we hear back.
Update June 7th, 5:30PM ET: This post was updated with a statement from a White House official and Bridenstine’s tweet.