Space-policy experts have been taking much of what Trump has said about the space program with a sizable grain of salt. His administration has yet to name a new head of NASA or provide updates on its promise to revive a National Space Council, a high-level advisory council on space activities last used under the first Bush administration. The administration appears to be putting off any big policy decisions until appointments are made, according to news reports.
But there has been some action. In February, the White House asked NASA to consider adding a human crew to the inaugural test launch of the Space Launch System, which will occur sometime in early 2019. NASA hadn’t planned on including astronauts on the first flight. But there appears to be a motivation inside the White House to speed up certain initiatives. “The common thread among many of the policy options, transition and industry officials said, is a focus on projects able to attract widespread voter support that realistically can be completed during Mr. Trump’s current four-year presidential term,” The Wall Street Journal reported.
Such a sense of urgency was on full display during Trump’s call with the International Space Station this week.
“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 Peggy Whitson, the commander of the station.
“Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s,” Whitson replied.
“Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term,” Trump said. “So we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”
Whitson laughed. “We’ll do our best,” she said.
“I think we’ll do it a lot sooner than we’re even thinking,” Trump said later in the call.
It wasn’t clear whether the president was serious about sending humans to Mars in the next four years, or making a joke that jibes with a campaign promise of rapid change. Either way, it would be impossible. The United States doesn’t have any crew launch capabilities of its own, and pays Russia millions of dollars to send its astronauts to space. And then there’s the science. Several stories appeared explaining what kind of engineering feats it would take to transport a crew to Mars that fast, with Sarah Fecht at Popular Science with perhaps the best response: a time machine. Asked to clarify the statement, a White House spokesman offered only that “the president has already taken steps to refocus NASA on its core mission of exploration.”
Trump’s insistence either showed enthusiasm or a lack of understanding of mission goals, experts said. But it’s not the job of a president to know the ins and outs of space exploration, and it’s not important if he does, Logsdon said. NASA welcomes the interest, no matter how unrealistic. “If the president’s lips move and he says positive things about the space program, that’s good for the space program,” Logsdon said. “I’m not sure Ronald Reagan knew a lot about the space program, but he said the right words.”
The politics are good, even if the physics aren’t.