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Trump Wants to Get To Mars Sooner Rather than Later

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2017
Updated: 24-Apr-2017 08:57 PM

During a telephone call with NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) today, President Donald Trump stressed the goal of getting kids interested in STEM education, but he also made clear that he wants to accelerate efforts to get humans to Mars.  While he initially joked about doing it in his first term or "at worst" in his second, he brought it up again later in a seemingly more serious manner and said that he thought it would be done sooner than the 2030s.

Last month, Trump signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 into law.  It has extensive language about the United States leading an effort to get humans to Mars, including a study of a "Mars 2033" mission to be launched that year.  It does not specify whether that mission would be to orbit or land on Mars.

Today, he asked NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson what the timeline was.  She replied that the goal is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, adding that it is expensive and time consuming.  Trump replied -- with a smile on his face and off-screen onlookers chuckling --  that "we want to try and do it during my first term or, at worst, during my second, so we'll have to speed that up."  During a more serious moment later on, he remarked that "I think we'll do it a lot sooner than anyone is thinking."

Trump phoned Whitson and fellow ISS astronaut Jack Fischer to congratulate Whitson on breaking the record for longest U.S. cumulative time in space. Whitson is part-way through her third long-duration mission to ISS and currently is in command of the facility.  She was the first woman to command ISS during her second mission in 2008 and is the first woman to command it twice.  Today she broke the 534-day U.S. cumulative time in space record held by Jeff Williams.  Fischer just arrived on ISS last Thursday along with Russian cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin.   ESA's Thomas Pesquet rounds out the current ISS crew.  He arrived with Whitson last November. 


NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer aboard the International Space Station while talking with President Donald Trump, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Russia's Gennady Padalka holds the world record for cumulative time in space -- 879 days.   Scott Kelly holds the U.S. record for CONTINUOUS time in space on a single mission -- 340 days.  Russia's Valeriy Polyakov holds the world record for continuous time in space -- 438 days.

President Trump was joined by his daughter Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins who recently returned from her own ISS mission where she sequenced DNA in space for the first time.


NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, President Donald Trump, daughter Ivanka Trump, in Oval Office talking to NASA astronauts Peggy Whitson and Jack Fischer on ISS, April 24, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Ivanka Trump pointed out that her father recently signed into law the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act to encourage woman and girls to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.  Rubins and Whitson both explained how they became interested in science and space.

Although much of the roughly 20-minute phone call was about STEM education, the President's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for eliminating NASA's Office of Education.  The disconnect between today's message and the reality of his budget request was not explained.

Similarly, the President's obvious interest in accelerating efforts to send people to Mars is not reflected in his FY2018 budget request.  Trump's FY2018 budget blueprint calls for funding the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew spacecraft at their current levels, not to mention a habitat and other needed systems.  The NASA Office of Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have both expressed skepticism that those programs can maintain their current schedules.

Whitson also noted that human Mars exploration will require international participation.  Fischer elaborated on that theme, remarking that he launched into space from Kazakhstan with a Russian colleague, arrived at the ISS and immediately set down to work installing experiments in Japan's Kibo module.  The next day he said he watched ESA/French astronaut Pesquet drive Canada's Canadarm2 to grab the Cygnus spacecraft, built in Virginia, to dock with ISS.  "The International Space Station is by far the best example of international cooperation of what we can do when we work together."

In terms of the technology needed to get people to Mars, Whitson pointed out that water is a "precious resource" in space and, to that end, ISS astronauts recycle their urine to make it drinkable and "it's not as bad as it sounds."  Trump affably replied that he was "glad to hear that," but "better you than me."

Whitson spoke confidently about humans going to Mars in the 2030s and encouraged students who might be listening that they will "have a part" in sending people to Mars if they study STEM fields because it will happen soon. 

President Trump's phone call to the ISS today was his first.  He joins a long list of Presidents making phone calls to astronauts in space.  According to a NASA History Office website, President Ronald Reagan made the most (11), President Obama was next (6), followed by George H.W. Bush (5, one of which was when he was Vice President), Clinton (4 - including the first shuttle-Mir flight), George W. Bush (2 - including the return-to-flight mission after Columbia), Richard Nixon (2 - to the Apollo 11 and Skylab 1 crews), and Gerald Ford (1 - during the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project).  

Video of the telephone call is posted on NASA's YouTube channel.


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