On Thursday evening, President Donald Trump spoke at a MAGA rally in New Hampshire. The president touched on his usual themes, such as immigration and guns, but he also spent two minutes talking about space—a subject he is interested in, and has held several Oval Office events around.
“We’re investing in the future of human spaceflight,” the president said, prefacing his off-the-cuff remarks on spaceflight. “And some day soon American astronauts will plant the stars and stripes on the surface of Mars.”
Trump never mentioned the Moon, or his administration’s lunar program, during this comment or in any of his subsequent remarks Thursday night. This is notable, because the signature human spaceflight initiative of his administration is the Artemis Program, an attempt to accelerate a human return to the Moon by 2024. The closest Trump came to acknowledging the Moon program was saying, “NASA has some of the greatest plans we’ve ever had. These are great people, great scientists.”
This is not the first time that the president has expressed a preference for sending astronauts to Mars. During a July 19, 2019, Oval Office photo opportunity with the surviving crew members of the Apollo 11 mission, Trump questioned NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine about whether the agency should just skip the Moon, and go directly to Mars.
These questions come at a critical time for NASA and Bridenstine, who is simultaneously trying to convince Congress to increase funding for the Artemis program in the fiscal year 2020 budget, attempting to quell a revolt from Texas Republicans about the lunar lander program, and placate a president who seems to prefer a direct-to-Mars approach.
On Thursday night, however, the president spent most of his time praising the private sector efforts to reuse rockets. (This is likely another difficult conversation between the NASA administrator and the president, as Bridenstine must justify spending in excess of $2 billion a year to develop the Space Launch System rocket, which is not reusable, while private entrepreneurs are building their large, reusable rockets largely without public money).
“So I see Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, they’re putting rockets up. I think it’s great,” Trump said. “The one which recently went up and you see the engines coming back down, there’s no wings or nothing. It’s almost like, what are we watching? Is this fiction?”
The president appeared to be referring to an April 11, 2019, launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX. During that mission the company landed two boosters side-by-side on land, and set a third one down on a drone ship off the coast in the Atlantic Ocean. The company then reused the side boosters for a second Falcon Heavy flight just two months later.
“Who would think they could do this?” Trump asked. “I never saw this before six months ago. But they’re doing it now more and more. They’re saving a lot of the most important and expensive parts of the rocket.”