“Very soon we are going to Mars. You wouldn’t have been going to Mars if my opponent won, that I can tell you. You wouldn’t even be thinking about it.”
— President Trump, in remarks at the Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, Calif., March 13, 2018
The Fact Checker usually focuses on earthly matters, but this time we’re setting our sights on our planetary neighbor millions of miles away.
The president wants the United States to explore more of the Solar System and speaks wistfully of the last moon landing by American astronauts in 1972. In December, Trump signed a directive calling on NASA to return to the moon and to boldly go where no man has gone before.
“This time, we will not only plant our flag and leave our footprint, we will establish a foundation for an eventual mission to Mars,” Trump said Dec. 11. “And perhaps, someday, to many worlds beyond.”
This spacefaring effort would not be happening if Hillary Clinton was president, Trump said March 13. “You wouldn’t even be thinking about it,” he said.
The claim seemed a little moony. Exploring Mars is not a partisan issue. Did Clinton support or oppose plans to get humans on Mars?
NASA has spent years preparing a “Journey to Mars” and currently plans to have astronauts orbiting the planet in the 2030s. Trump has called space travel a priority and his administration could choose to speed things up, a NASA spokeswoman said.
Under Trump, NASA announced plans for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, which would be built in the 2020s. This is a key step, since astronauts would use this platform orbiting the moon as a testing ground in deep space and then as a hub between Earth and Mars.
Under President Barack Obama, NASA began to work on a reusable rocket ship designed to take crews from Earth to Mars and then back and forth from Mars to the moon platform. (“Our next goal is to get to Mars,” Obama said in 2016.)
The plan, in a nutshell, is to hopscotch from Earth to the moon to Mars over several decades. NASA does not yet have a solid target date for landing on the Red Planet. The first big step is building the moon-orbiting gateway and then traveling to the area around Mars, such as “low-Mars orbit or one of the Martian moons,” NASA says.
After all this, NASA says, the next step would be sending astronauts to land on Mars, perhaps sometime in the late 2030s. (Elon Musk of SpaceX is building his own spaceship and says it could be test-flying to Mars in 2019. But word to the wise: Musk adds there’s a “good chance you will die.”)
So what does Clinton have to say about all this?
Fact Checker Meg Kelly unearthed a video clip showing that Clinton has been talking about getting humans on Mars since at least 1999. As first lady, Clinton helped launch the “Mars Millennium Project,” an educational campaign “to imagine a new life on the red planet.”
In a 1999 speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Clinton said this project was “challenging schoolchildren around the nation in conjunction with NASA to design a community that they would want to live on the planet Mars in the year 2030.”
More recently, during the 2016 race, Clinton’s campaign submitted written responses to questions about space travel from ScienceDebate.org. She said one of her goals would have been to “advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.” (In response to the same questions, “Trump did not formally support a human Mars exploration program or other specific initiatives,” Space News noted.)
“Today, thanks to a series of successful American robotic explorers, we know more about the Red Planet than ever before,” Clinton said. “A goal of my administration will be to expand this knowledge even further and advance our ability to make human exploration of Mars a reality.”
Presumably, this would have meant supporting the same “Journey to Mars” initiatives that have enjoyed Obama and Trump’s support. Jake Sullivan, who served as Clinton’s top policy adviser during the campaign, confirmed that Clinton “proposed to advance plans for human exploration of Mars.”
Clinton even visited a factory in Michigan making parts and tooling for the Space Launch System. That’s the rocket for the Orion spaceship NASA is building for the Mars voyage and other deep-space destinations. “I got to see what’s happening here to help build the SLS rocket that is going to go from Macomb to Mars,” Clinton said in August 2016.
The White House did not respond to our request for comment.
The Pinocchio Test
Space, the final frontier, was very much on Clinton’s mind in 2016. Unlike Trump, Clinton was on the record during the campaign supporting efforts to get humans to Mars one day.
It’s not clear that the American plan for Martian colonization would be unfolding any differently had Clinton won the presidency, since NASA’s “Journey to Mars” initiative predates Trump and builds on what Obama did. And in any case, Americans are not expected to be walking on Mars during the four or eight years of the current administration.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to get this right, so the president earns Four Pinocchios.
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