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Will Trump echo JFK’s moonshot and vow to send humans to Mars?

Mars. (NASA via AP)

For drive-by readers we offer this immediate answer to the question posed in our headline: Almost certainly not, at least in the inaugural address. Maybe later. By tradition, inaugurals are broadly thematic and not specific. President-elect Donald Trump has been studying past inaugurals, according to his aides, so he understands that this is not a State of the Union address with a laundry list of proposals.

That said, we feel no shame in plunging forward with speculation about Trump and Mars. It's plausible that Trump could talk about a Mars mission sometime in the very near future.

For starters, Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and Tesla, has made two trips to Trump Tower. He met at least once with Trump and, we’re reliably told, discussed Mars and public-private partnerships.

As we have reported many times, Musk and his people at SpaceX have the bold dream of colonizing Mars, and think they can launch the first human mission to the surface of the Red Planet as soon as 2024 — when Trump, if reelected, would still be in the White House. (We understand that Musk also talked with Trump about other issues, including the need for a smart grid — the kind of infrastructure that would give a boost to the solar energy business, in which Musk is a leader via his investments in the company Solar City.)

Musk does not share the same political views as Trump, but both men have had success as motivators. Those of us who are realists may roll our eyes at some of Musk’s most ambitious, outlandish proposals — including his desire to build a fleet of gigantic spaceships taking 100 people at a time to Mars as part of a commercial colonization venture — but we have to acknowledge that this kind of thinking is exciting for young engineers in a way that NASA’s far more plodding, incremental approach to human spaceflight is not.

Trump understands the power of a big idea, and the leverage that can come from a cult of personality. He has been interested in John F. Kennedy’s vow to send humans to the moon. He discussed that early this month at Trump Tower with historian Douglas Brinkley.

“He reflected on how the Apollo program brought the country together,” Brinkley told The Washington Post this week in a phone interview. “It captures the spirit of the American people. That’s the word he used — ‘spirit’.”

The United States is still the only country to put a human on the moon, and the only country to land a fully operational spacecraft on Mars. “That’s American exceptionalism,” Brinkley said.

With Trump, Gingrich and GOP calling the shots, NASA may return to the moon

But he doesn’t think Trump will talk about space missions in the inaugural address.

“He might say something vague and morale-building about the moonshot in his inaugural, but if he got into something specific, that would seem to me a late-spring kind of thing,” he said.

One reason Trump wouldn’t likely mention a specific proposal such as going to Mars is that it would immediately trigger difficult conversations and media coverage about the cost. The price tag would likely be jaw-dropping.  Trump could find himself labeled a big spender. That wouldn’t make Republicans happy.

What is far more likely is that Trump and the Republicans will embrace a return to the moon as a steppingstone to a Mars mission. That was what President George W. Bush wanted to do, and his NASA team put together an elaborate moon program, called Constellation. Obama killed the idea, saying we’d been there, done that. But Republicans still have the moon in their sights. Trump would have to find a rhetorical framework for selling a moonshot that didn’t get labeled as an Apollo rerun.

Further reading:

Mars is not a Plan B

How Trump could really disrupt NASA and the space program

Elon Musk wants to colonize Mars, but don't pack your bags just yet