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President Donald Trump shows off a flight jacket he was given after signing a NASA authorization bill into law in 2017. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

President Donald Trump put the space community on edge today with a tweet that downplayed NASA’s plans to send astronauts to the moon by 2024 as the first step toward a sustainable lunar presence.

Instead, Trump framed the moon program — unveiled by Vice President Mike Pence amid much fanfare less than three months ago — as being merely part of a bigger push to Mars.

At least that’s what he meant to say. The way the tweet was phrased left itself open to all sorts of interpretations, including an obviously misintended claim that the moon was part of the Red Planet:

Ironically, Trump’s dismissal of lunar missions as something that was done 50 years ago echoed what his predecessor in the White House, Barack Obama, said when he decided to drop the Constellation back-to-the-moon program in 2010: “We’ve been there before.”

Today’s presidential tweet came amid deep discussions over how much it will cost to accelerate NASA’s moon exploration program, now known as Artemis, and make the 2024 deadline for putting the next man and the first woman on the lunar surface.

For that reason, some analysts worried that Artemis might be in trouble:

Space Policy Online’s Marcia Smith, meanwhile, pointed to speculation that the tweet might have been sparked by a Fox News interview during which NASA’s chief financial officer was asked why NASA hasn’t gotten farther in space since the days of Apollo, or a jesting suggestion made by Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins on CNN that Trump might not “understand that there is a planet Mars.”

In any case, it didn’t take long for Trump administration officials — including NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine — to reframe Trump’s tweet:

Trump’s moon tweet was just one of a series of outbursts on subjects ranging from immigration and trade to congressional investigations, and he soon moved on to hailing the stock market’s performance this week (after a series of downward-trending weeks). But his off-the-cuff advice to stop talking about the moon may make things a little tricky for the witnesses at next Tuesday’s congressional hearing on space science — and for Bridenstine and other NASA officials who are trying to build support for the Artemis program among congressional skeptics.

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