The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump wants NASA to send humans to Mars pronto — by his second term ‘at worst’

Video: 'Better you than me': Trump's phone call with the International Space Station (Video: Reuters)

What we are reporting here isn't fake news. But it doesn't feel exactly like real news, either. It's in that foggy realm of Trump news in which everything is slightly ambiguous and wobbly and internally inconsistent and almost certainly improvisational and not actually grounded in what you could call “government policy.” What happened was: Trump called the International Space Station and talked to astronauts and, in passing, mentioned that he's going to send Americans to Mars, and soon, like really lickety-split.

Trump was marking the historic achievement of astronaut Peggy Whitson, the commander of the International Space Station, who set a record for most days in space by an American astronaut. (Also on the call from the Oval Office were Ivanka Trump, who spoke about the administration's efforts to encourage women and girls to get involved in STEM fields, and astronaut Kate Rubins.)

During the call, the president asked Whitson and fellow American astronaut Jack Fischer a question:

TRUMP: “Tell me: Mars, what do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?”

WHITSON: “Well, I think as your bill directed, it'll be approximately in the 2030s. As I mentioned, we actually are building hardware to test the new heavy launch vehicle, and this vehicle will take us further than we've ever been away from this planet.

“So, unfortunately space flight takes a lot of time and money so getting there will require some international cooperation to get the — it to be a planet-wide approach in order to make it successful just because it is a very expensive endeavor. But it is so worthwhile doing.”

TRUMP: “Well, we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second term, so we'll have to speed that up a little bit, okay?”

WHITSON: “We'll do our best.”

It's hard to know if Trump was entirely serious (it's possible he was just joshin') or if he even has been briefed on the current NASA human spaceflight program. He may not know where Mars is. (Who does, really? You know it moves around a lot.)

Trump, with NASA, has a new spaceship. Where does he want to go?

When Whitson said “your bill” she was clearly referring to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, passed by Congress and signed by Trump this year. The act essentially keeps NASA on the same course it's been for years when it comes to human spaceflight — aiming at a mission to Mars with a 2033 launch. The first mission would be an orbital mission only; a later mission would attempt a landing.

NASA, understanding that Trump wants to do something big in the first term, has pondered adding astronauts to a test flight of the new Space Launch System rocket. There is very little chance that NASA is sending humans to Mars by 2024. That happens to be the year that Elon Musk — who has met with Trump — has said he thinks SpaceX can launch a Mars mission, though that's an extremely ambitious timeline, and Musk has a history of over-promising when it comes to schedules. For NASA to pull off such a thing, and to do it with proper safety margins and reliable hardware, would require a massive infusion of money into the space agency. This would be a crash program. Even then, it would be almost impossible to make the 2024 deadline — much less by the end of Trump's first term.

So we're going to mark this down as noise rather than signal when it comes to Trump's space policy. But who knows? We live in interesting times. We advise that you keep your seat belt securely fastened and your tray table and seat back in their full upright position.

Further reading:

Trump may echo JFK's ‘moonshot’ speech

Trump's budget calls for seismic disruption in funding for science and medical research