WHITTINGTON: President Trump Has A Problematic Fixation On Mars

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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President Trump has a fixation on going to Mars. That’s misguided and problematic for several reasons. NASA is going to the moon in the near term, not Mars. Trump, first in a tweet and then in a line at a political rally, seemed to suggest otherwise, spreading confusion and consternation.

While he was on his way home from D-Day Celebrations, the president offered the following tweet: “For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!”

The tweet caused a great deal of incredulity and mockery in the mainstream media. Some stories claimed that Trump had thrown the Artemis return to the moon program under the bus in favor of going to Mars. Others claimed that the president was confused about the moon and Mars being separate worlds. Neither supposition was true, but even as NASA chief Jim Bridenstine attempted to perform damage control, doubt had been sown, especially among members of Congress who have been asked to authorize funding for the moon effort.

Just as the furor died down, Trump did it again at his 2020 campaign kickoff rally in Orlando, Florida when he said he would, “lay the foundation for landing American astronauts on the surface of Mars.” He did not mention that foundation would be on the moon.

The first and overriding reason why the president’s sudden fixation on Mars is a problem is that NASA has been tasked with sending astronauts to the moon, not just Mars. The president should know this, as he signed the executive order that tasked the space agency to make it happen.

Besides, while NASA has plans to go to Mars and is touting the missions to the moon as being, in part, to test technology that could then be used for voyages to the Red Planet, NASA astronauts will not reach Mars before the 2030s at the earliest.

When Trump first signed the moon executive order, the plan was for American astronauts to land on the moon by 2028. But Vice President Mike Pence subsequently announced that the date of the next moon landing will be brought forward to 2024, which not coincidentally would be the last year of a hypothetical second term.

If Congress provides the extra funding necessary to get “the first woman and the next man” to the moon, if NASA and its commercial partners can keep to the 2024 schedule, and if Trump is reelected, the president will have an historic event with which to usher out his presidency. He will likely not be alive when people set foot on Mars. Therefore, all things being equal, the president should tout at every opportunity the Artemis moon program.

If the president is fuzzy about the reasons Americans should return to the moon (outside of it being a stepping stone to Mars), he has a lot of experts at his beck and call, not just at NASA but in the commercial sector, who can enlighten him. Both Clara Moskowitz and the late Paul Spudis have eloquently laid out the rationale for returning to the moon. The moon will advance science, the commercial development of space, and America’s standing in the world in profound ways.

Trump should articulate those reasons in public. He should at least reserve a few lines for going back to the moon during rallies that will take place in the 2020 campaign as well as his frequent tweets. Trump should even consider devoting an entire speech to advance his space policy, just as President Kennedy did at Rice University toward the beginning of the Apollo program.

Then, if the stars align, President Trump will be able to witness the launch of the first humans to the moon in two generations and then the first moon walk of the 21st century. Long after mundane issues such as immigration are forgotten by all but historians, Trump would be remembered as the president who ushered in the great age of deep space exploration. That wouldn’t be a bad legacy.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.