As the Washington Post reports(1), President Donald Trump recently held a video conference call with two of the astronauts on the International Space Station, Peggy Whitson, who recently became the American with the longest accumulated hours in space, and Jack Fischer. During the conversation, which focused a lot on STEM education, the following exchange occurred.
A Conversation With Trump
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.”
Right away a debate arose on social media and elsewhere on the question of whether the president was serious or was speaking in jest.
One theory (2) that has been advanced is that Trump has heard about SpaceX’s Elon Musk’s plan to send people to Mars as early as 2024-25 (3) which would place the first landing on the Red Planet just outside the time frame he presented. Trump could be contemplating scrapping the Journey to Mars program (4) that envisions a landing on the Red Planet by the 2030s and instead outsourcing it to SpaceX.
It would be a bold move, but one that would entail a lot of risks, both actual and political.
The Trump administration has suggested that it may want to send astronauts back to the moon first, before going to Mars. The White House has asked NASA to evaluate a mission to send two astronauts on a trip around the moon by 2019 (5). The space agency has completed the study, and it is under evaluation.
Visiting the Moon First
Motherboard obtained some documents (6) from the Trump transition team under a Freedom of Information Act request that revealed that it asked NASA about the possibility of extracting lunar resources using partnerships with the private sector, in effect monetizing a return to the Moon.
Going to the moon first would make going to Mars easier and cheaper, according to separate studies by MIT (7) and a think tank called Next-Gen Space (8). The polar regions of the moon contain billions of tons of water ice secreted in the darkened areas of craters. Water can be refined into hydrogen and oxygen, the components of rocket fuel.
If spacecraft headed to Mars do not have to take all the fuel they need directly from Earth, instead stopping by the moon to top off their tanks, journeys to the Red Planet become much more sustainable.
In any case, Trump has come a long way from the start of the 2016 campaign, when he seemed to dismiss the idea of going to Mars, suggesting that America needed to fix its crumbling infrastructure first. The President has reported having arrived at the belief that an active program of space exploration, geared toward encouraging the private sector, fits in neatly with his idea of “making America great again.”
From his standpoint, the potential effect on his glory would not be bad, either.
References & Image Credits:
(1) Washington Post
(2) Blasting News
(3) Space Flight Now
(5) Washington Post
(8) The Verge
(9) photo credit: tj.blackwell Curiosity Mars Rover: Our Interplanery Emissary via photopin (license)