While most Americans and the mainstream media are focused on other news about the Trump administration, space watchers had their ears perked up by an excerpt from yet another book about the administration by yet another former member with mostly the same stories to tell … except for one. According to the new tell-all, “Team of Vipers” by former White House aide Cliff Sims, early in his term President Trump made a once-in-a-lifetime offer to then Acting Administrator of NASA Robert M. Lightfoot, Jr. – a blank check made out to NASA to pay for a manned mission to Mars before the 2020 presidential election. Wait … what?
“What’s our plan for Mars?”
According to an excerpt of the book in New York Magazine, that’s the question President Trump asked Lightfoot on April 24, 2017, while getting ready for a video call to the International Space Station to congratulate astronaut Peggy Whitson on breaking the American record for the longest amount of time in space. This was just a month after the president signed a landmark bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA — significant because it was the first NASA authorization in seven years and contained funding specifically for sending humans to Mars by the 2030s. Sims was also in the room and reports that at about ten minutes before the well-choreographed and limited-time linkup to the ISS, Trump suddenly sprung the question on Livingston, who quickly responded with the aforementioned 2030 timetable.
“But is there any way we could do it by the end of my first term?”
At that point, Sims remembers that Lightfoot, a former engineer, got technical and quickly discussed the logistics of “distance, fuel capacity, etc. Also the fact that we hadn’t landed an American anywhere remotely close to Mars ever.”
“But what if I gave you all the money you could ever need to do it? What if we sent NASA’s budget through the roof, but focused entirely on that instead of whatever else you’re doing now. Could it work then?”
Sims says they were 90 seconds away from calling Whitson. Lightfoot gave the president a quick but respectful “no” answer and a “visibly upset” Trump pulled himself together for the congratulatory call. Or did he?
“Tell me, Mars — what do you see a timing for actually sending humans?”
That’s right. Sims recalls that, after asking astronaut Whitson about her current mission and the record, he put her on the spot in front of her boss – not to mention the media and the entire world. Being well-versed in public relations as all astronauts must be these days, Whitson gave the 2030s answer and – unaware of the offer he just made to her boss — reminded the president that the enormous cost would need to be shared among the other spacefaring nations.
“Well, I think we want to do it in my first term or at worst in my second term. So I think we’ll have to speed that up a little bit.”
Sims says the media coverage at the time, not knowing about the president’s black check offer to Livingston, reported that the questions and comments to Whitson about Mars were made “jokingly” – but Sims writes they obviously were not.
Another president from another space era made a promise in 1961 to put a man on the Moon by the end of the decade. That would have been long after it could have been used in a campaign for re-election in 1964. Space exploration is not just something that human nature demands – some would argue it’s a necessity because of our current state of affairs and planetary conditions. However, is it deserving of a blank check ahead of so many other national, international and planetary needs? And for such a trivial – some would say selfish – reason?
Could you turn down a blank check? Say what you will about NASA, but all of the training received by everyone from astronauts to administrators to the day-to-day operators made this another situation where cooler heads prevailed.
John Glenn and a few other astronauts have served in Congress. Is it time to elect some more?