It is not the job of presidents to know the specifics of space exploration and its mind-bending physics, or to contemplate deeply the timescales and technology required for a high-stakes mission to another planet. But usually they have some sense of what’s remotely possible, and of what they’ve asked their space agency to do.
In the spring of 2017, President Donald Trump signed a significant piece of legislation about the future of NASA. The bill, among other things, reaffirmed a top priority for the American space program: sending humans to Mars by the 2030s.
Then, it seems, the president forgot all about it.
A month after signing the bill, Trump reportedly asked the then–acting administrator of NASA whether the space agency could send American astronauts to Mars by the end of his first term, and even offered him “all the money you could ever need” to make it happen. The NASA official politely turned him down, explaining that such a fast turnaround to a distant planet wasn’t possible.
The exchange, which took place in the Oval Office, appears in Team of Vipers, a forthcoming book by the former White House official Cliff Sims, and was first reported by New York magazine this week.
For anyone who knows about space travel, this encounter amounts to a breathtaking misunderstanding by a leader of the state of his nation’s space program. But it’s only the latest such mishap in Trump’s presidency. More than many presidents, Trump has been eager to talk about American ambitions in the cosmos. But his enthusiasm has clashed with his disinterest in the details of the complicated, risky requirements of actually sending people off this planet.