Shortly after he assumed the office of presidency, Donald Trump had a conversation with the acting administrator of NASA regarding the likelihood of a crewed mission to Mars by the end of his first term if he gave NASA unlimited funding.
What makes this even more amusing is that it all started when he scheduled a video call to the International Space Station to congratulate Peggy Whitson who, that day, became the American who has spent the longest amount of time in space.
The story is told in a new book called Team of Vipers, written by Cliff Simms, who was a a communications official for Trump.
Writing for New York Magazine, Olivia Nuzzi reported:
Trump sat at his desk in the Oval Office, flanked by his daughter and adviser, Ivanka, and astronaut Kate Rubins, and read prepared remarks off a sheet of paper while other members of his staff — Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, and Betsy DeVos — looked on. Suspended aboard the Space Station, Whitson and Colonel Jack Fischer fielded his questions, including, “What are we learning by being in space?”
The only major hiccup visible to the public came when Trump asked about Mars. “Tell me, Mars — what do you see a timing for actually sending humans?” he said. Whitson responded by noting that just a month earlier, Trump had signed a bill outlining such timing. “Well, I think as your bill directed, it would be in the 2030s,” she said. “Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will take some international cooperation.”
Trump’s reply was simplistic. “Well, I think we want to do it in my first term or at worst in my second term,” he reportedly said. “So I think we’ll have to speed that up a little bit.”
Strange comments coming from someone who nominated Betsy DeVos, someone who believes that the Earth is only 6000 years old, as head of the Department of Education.
Not that he deserves it, but to be completely fair to Trump, he explained that “We don’t capture people’s imaginations anymore,” something that he’s not necessarily wrong about.
There are so many things going on in the world that the average person doesn’t have time to think about space exploration, and only get interested when there’s a noteworthy event (like the recent lunar eclipse or the solar eclipse in 2017). I’ve heard it at least 50 times, but I still get goosebumps listening to JFK’s speech about the United States going to the moon.
Trump reportedly went on to say “We used to do big things — incredible things. No one could do the things we could do. You have to inspire people. They went to the moon. But the call would be great. Honestly, how cool is NASA?”
Again, we have to give Trump credit where he’s due. He’s not wrong. NASA is the best space agency in the world.
NY Mag goes on to explain that Trump really didn’t know what he was talking about and genuinely didn’t understand the concept of spaceflight. An engineer had to explain what “orbital mechanics” are to him and why a video call to the International Space Station had to be scheduled in advance, and why there was only a 20 minute window for the call to happen. That is, until the gears started turning in Trump’s head:
Then, something happened. Trump “suddenly appeared distracted, distant,” wrote Sims. “I could sense the gears inside of his head starting to turn. I was losing him.” As the clock ticked down, Trump “suddenly turned toward the NASA administrator.” He asked: “What’s our plan for Mars?”
Lightfoot explained to the president — who, again, had recently signed a bill containing a plan for Mars — that NASA planned to send a rover to Mars in 2020 and, by the 2030s, would attempt a manned spaceflight.
“Trump bristled,” according to Sims. He asked, “But is there any way we could do it by the end of my first term?”
Ah, yes. It’s not about space exploration for the greater good – it was about being able to claim that he got humans to Mars. We went from JFK’s “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” to “I want people to know that Donald Trump is directly responsible for sending people to Mars.”
But… I would be okay with that. Sure, for Trump it was a self-serving mission, but it means NASA would have had the resources to do truly out of this world work. The ends would have justified the means.
This all happened after Trump signed a bill giving NASA the plan to put humans on Mars in the 2030s. He wanted to push up an already lofty goal by over ten years. They very likely said something along the lines of “that’s not how it works, that’s not how any of this works,” just 90 seconds before they were supposed to be on the call with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
Trump wasn’t ready to refocus yet, however. As he walked with Sims from the dining room to the Oval Office, he stopped just outside the door. “He decided to stop in his white-marbled bathroom for one final check in the mirror,” Sims wrote. He had 30 seconds before he was supposed to be on camera, and Sims was “now nearing full on panic.” (NY Mag)
But possibly my favorite line from the NY Mag article was when Trump was in his final preparation for the call:
In the bathroom mirror, Trump smirked and said to himself, “Space Station, this is your President.”
Cover image via iStockphoto