Trump Promises the Moon “Very Soon” and Mars “Someday Soon”

Trump Promises the Moon “Very Soon” and Mars “Someday Soon”

In his Salute to America address yesterday, President Trump honored iconic NASA Apollo flight director Gene Kranz and promised that the United States will be back on the Moon “very soon.”  He then added that trips to Mars will happen “someday soon.”  He invoked the names of other aviation and space legends, but stopped short of the rousing rhetoric used by Vice President Mike Pence in March to proclaim that American astronauts will return to the lunar surface in 2024.

Trump’s decision to make a major speech on the National Mall accompanied by tanks and military aircraft as he campaigns for reelection is controversial because some view it as politicizing the military and the July 4th holiday. Looking only at the content of his remarks from a space policy perspective, however, it offers a third instance when the President himself has mentioned the goal of returning to the Moon since Pence made the surprise announcement on March 26 that the Administration wants to accomplish that in just 5 years.

Pence’s remarks were a call to action, warning NASA that if it is unable to meet that goal, NASA must change, not the goal.  Without naming the company, he also chastised Space Launch System (SLS) prime contractor Boeing that if it cannot get that rocket ready in time, another will be found.

Trump has not expressed such intensity, however. His interest in returning Americans to the Moon dates back to December 2017 when he signed Space Policy Directive-1 directing NASA to do just that.  No time frame was placed on it though.  Pence’s proclamation to do it by 2024 — the end of a Trump second term assuming he is reelected — is the issue because the cost is so high.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine puts it at $20-30 billion over those 5 years on top of NASA’s roughly $21 billion annual budget.

To get that kind of money, Trump’s personal support will be crucial as he negotiates budgets with Congress.  But after Pence’s March 26 speech, Trump waited until May 13 to say anything about it and Mars was as much a part of the picture as the Moon.

Increasing NASA’s FY2020 budget by $1.6 billion is not nearly enough to accelerate a lunar landing to 2024, and on June 7 he left many scratching their heads and wondering if he really is behind the Moon program at all.

The Moon versus Mars debate has gone on for decades.  The Moon crowd argues it is essential to test systems and humans on the Moon before going to Mars because it is only 3 days away and it is relatively easy to get home in an emergency.  They also believe lunar resources have economic value and useful scientific research can be conducted there.  Mars advocates claim the Moon is “been there, done that” and it is time to tackle new challenges.

Trump seems conflicted.  His June 7 tweet sounded like someone to whom Mars beckons, but yesterday he was back on the “Moon first” page.

Exactly 50 years ago this month, the world watched in awe as Apollo 11 astronauts launched into space with a wake of fire and nerves of steel, and planted our great American flag on the face of the moon.  Half a century later, we are thrilled to have here tonight the famed NASA Flight Director who led Mission Control during that historic endeavor: the renowned Gene Kranz.  (Applause.)

Gene, I want you to know that we are going to be back on the moon very soon.  And someday soon, we will plant the American flag on Mars.  (Applause.)  It’s happening, Gene.  It’s happening. — President Trump, July 4, 2019 (White House Transcript)

Apollo flight director Gene Kranz being honored at the Salute to America, July 4, 2019. Screengrab.

Kranz was the flight director for Apollo 11, the first human lunar landing that took place 50 years ago this month.

On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to step foot on another world.  It was the first of six landings.  The last, Apollo 17, was in December 1972.  Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush each announced plans to return — the 1989 Space Exploration Initiative and the 2004 Vision for Space Exploration — but neither survived the ends of their terms in office.

The problem is always money.  Even with the new NASA effort to encourage international and commercial partnerships, it is very expensive to send people into space, especially beyond low Earth orbit.  Looking at its expected budgets for the next decade, NASA’s plan was to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2028.  Pence’s decision to accelerate that by 4 years means bringing forward all the money needed to build lunar landers, spacesuits and other necessary hardware and software.

Trump did not put his presidential weight behind the 2024 date yesterday.  “Very soon” can mean almost anything and he did not use the name Artemis, which is synonymous with the Moon-by-2024 effort.

“Someday soon” for going to Mars is even more vague.  In the early days of his Administration, he asked astronaut Peggy Whitson if humans could get to Mars within his presidency.  She replied that it was not likely until the 2030s, but Trump later said ““I think we’ll do it a lot sooner than anyone is thinking.”

Obama wanted to skip the Moon and go straight to Mars.  It would be ironic if Trump decided to follow Obama’s lead, but whatever the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, presidential leadership in getting the money will be essential.

The Apollo 11 50th anniversary is just two weeks away.  No announcement has been made as to whether Trump will make an address to coincide with it, but if he really wants to get astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, that would be a good time to clarify his intentions.

Trump paid tribute to Kranz, who is as renowned in space circles as the “failure is not an option” flight director for the harrowing Apollo 13 mission as for Apollo 11.  Also getting shout-outs were former NASA astronauts John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Gus Grissom and famed aviators the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart, Jimmy Doolittle, Billy Mitchell, and Chuck Yeager as “heroes who defined our national character” or for their military service.

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