Trump spent most of his remarks Thursday talking about the engineering feats of SpaceX, not NASA. “I don’t know if you saw last—with Elon—with the rocket boosters where they’re coming back down,” he said. “To me, that was more amazing than watching the rocket go up, because I’ve never seen that before. Nobody’s seen that before, where they’re saving the boosters, and they came back without wings, without anything. They landed so beautifully.”
The president was referring to SpaceX’s ability to return parts of its rocket system, land them upright on launchpads and drone ships, and then reuse them again in other flights. This praise may be distressing for folks working on SLS to hear, too. Most of the spaceflight industry has been moving decisively toward reusable rockets to make launches cheaper. But the SLS is not a reusable rocket, and the government has received a fair amount of criticism for spending so much money on a rocket you can’t use more than once. Regardless of that criticism—and of Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for reusable rockets—the SLS will move forward, thanks in large part to support from congressional lawmakers who represent states where the rocket is being built.
Trump mentioned Mars during his remarks—“we’ll be sending something very beautiful to Mars in the very near future”—but not the moon, a peculiar omission considering his administration’s space agenda so far. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence announced the United States would put a strong emphasis on lunar missions, marking a clear pivot from the previous administration’s Mars-focused policy. White House and NASA officials have since talked up a return to the moon, especially at meetings of the National Space Council, which Pence chairs. And Trump’s budget request for NASA, released last month, said the agency should “pursue a campaign that would establish U.S. preeminence to, around, and on the moon.”
The president is not, of course, expected to name-drop every celestial body when he talks about space, but the exclusion of the moon seemed at odds with his long-term policies.
“I’m unsure how Pence actually feels about space. Maybe he knows a lot, maybe he doesn’t know much but has policy preferences and/or intellectual curiosity, maybe he is just savvier at feigning interest and getting his staff to prep a cheat sheet after decades in politics,” the Orion engineer said. “But at least the things he says from one meeting to the next are consistent.” Pence was the one who provided the model rockets at Thursday’s meeting, the White House said, a souvenir from the recent National Space Council meeting in Florida.
In general, Trump loves talking about space, and has publicly discussed the country’s space program more than other modern presidents have in their first months in office, according to space-policy experts and historians. That’s because, as I’ve written before, space is Trump’s least controversial frontier. Space-exploration efforts historically receive strong bipartisan support and, as the Falcon Heavy flight showed last month, everyone loves a good, fiery rocket launch. Trump rarely passes up an opportunity to talk about space and praise the achievements of American astronauts, in the same way he won’t miss a chance to praise Americans in other dangerous jobs, like soldiers, police officers, and firefighters.