Trump’s Call to Space Station Becomes All About Trump

The nominal purpose of President Donald Trump’s phone call to the International Space Station on Monday was to congratulate NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson on setting a new American record for total time in space.

That he did. But, in the process, the president somehow managed to turn the event back to his favorite subject: himself.

That process began when he asked Whitson a fairly simple question: when is the country going to be sending astronauts to Mars. The record breaking astronaut rather delicately responded that according to the NASA funding bill Trump had just signed, the nation’s aiming for missions in the 2030’s.

With a chuckle, Trump replied that he would love to do it by the end of his first term in 2021 or his second in 2025.

That first deadline is, of course, impossible while the second is, at best, highly improbable. That’s certainly the case with NASA’s current funding levels and the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, which are not scheduled to make the first crewed flight until 2021 at the earliest.

So, the president — who didn’t seem to know what the schedule for sending humans to Mars was when he started the phone call — was certainly joking when he proposed moving the deadline up about 8 to 10 years? Right?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not.

Trump returned to the subject later in the conversation, praising himself for having signed a bill calling for sending Americans to Mars and saying he’d love to see it done while he’s in office.

This further remark quickly generated vigorous debates on social media and headlines online about what the president meant. Was he serious? Did he have some plan to get astronauts to Mars in less than 8 years? Would he embrace Elon Musk’s plan to begin sending thousands of colonists there by the mid-2020’s?

My guesses are: Maybe. No. Probably not.

Barring a massive increase in NASA funding, getting astronauts to Mars by the end of Trump’s hypothetical second term would mean cancelling SLS and Orion — which are at the center of NASA’s plans and the funding measure Trump signed — and giving billions to SpaceX to pursue the plan Musk unveiled in Mexico last September.

There is virtually no — zero, nada, zilch, rien de tout — support in Congress for anything like that. SLS and Orion exist because of Congress. They support too many jobs in too many states and districts crucial to Trump’s re-election chances. So, any attempt to cancel them would almost certainly fail.

But, look at what Trump’s statements did. They focused the discussion away from Whitson’s achievement onto what the president would or would not do. Trump was not going to upstaged by some astronaut who have traveled around and around in space for god know’s how many days.

And here’s the other misdirection. To reinforce the focus on the family Trump, the president had first daughter Ivanka with him in the Oval Office. With Melania Trump’s absence from Washington, Trump’s daughter has become a sort of surrogate first lady.

One of Ivanka pet causes as special assistant to the president is to encourage female students to become involved in STEM education. She dutifully talked about the Trump Administration’s deep support for STEM and science in general.

Of course, this is really not true. The outline for Trump’s first budget would eliminate NASA’s Education Office. It would end three of the space agency’s environmental missions. Turn off a camera on a working satellite that provides images of the entire Earth. The budget would slash support for science across the federal government. It would devastate global change research. The budget would also cut education funding, including money for training new teachers.

Ivanka’s support for STEM means absolutely nothing if her father carries out his plans to gut science funding across the entire federal government. It’s a meaningless gesture that amounts to nothing without policies to support it.

But, what are people talking about after the call to the space station? Not Whitson’s achievement. Not the Trumps’ hypocrisy in promoting science education while cutting the budget.

No, everyone’s talking about the president’s desire to send people to Mars while he’s in office, even though there doesn’t seem to be any plan or money available to do so.

The media is easily distracted by shiny things. It’s one of the reasons Trump won the presidency. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me dozens of times, it must be Donald Trump.