President Donald Trump called the International Space Station (ISS) yesterday to chat to the astronauts up there about various things, including how happy he was that he didn’t have to drink his own recycled urine. While congratulating ISS commander Peggy Whitson for her record-setting number of days in low-Earth orbit, he also asked her a rather curious question that, bizarrely, only he could answer:
“Tell me,” he began. “Mars: What do you see a timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?”
“Well, I think as your bill directed, it'll be approximately in the 2030s,” Whitson pointed out.
Following on from an Obama-era commitment to get a manned mission to Mars by the 2030s, Trump recently signed a temporary $19.5 billion NASA funding bill for 2018, which also included the goal of getting humans to at least orbit the Red Planet by 2033. So really, he should know when they’ll perhaps be getting to Mars – it’s his decision, and that of his as of yet unappointed NASA administrator.
That, however, was not the most bizarre part of his astronomically strange exchange with the ISS. In response to Whitson explaining that it’ll be a difficult endeavor, and one that requires both decent amounts of funding and support from other countries around the world, Trump said this:
“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?”
Hopefully, he’s not being serious here – but then again, who knows?
No single space agency on Earth is ready for a manned mission to Mars right now, not NASA, not SpaceX – nobody. Even if they suddenly left right this very moment, it would take eight months to get there, before spending several months in orbit or at the surface, and then eight months back again.
Trump’s first term will end in just over three years, and his hypothetical second in seven. A mission planned and launched in even as many as seven years would almost certainly send its astronauts to a very distant, cold, and dusty grave.
Sure, JFK famously declared that NASA would go to the Moon in 1961, and eight years later Armstrong and Aldrin were bouncing across the surface. Mars, however, is a lot further away and it’s a far harsher environment to explore.
A recent Jet Propulsion Laboratory study claims that we could get to Mars by 2039, provided NASA builds a base on the moon of Phobos by 2033 – and that’s certainly ambitious.
To her credit, Whitson gave as best an answer as she could to the odd request. “We'll do our best,” she said.
[H/T: Washington Post]