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:
For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon – We did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 7, 2019
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:
I'm hearing from a couple sources that acting White House CoS Mick Mulvaney, currently on AF1 with Trump, may be an internal opponent pushing against the Artemis moon program.
— Tim Fernholz (@TimFernholz) June 7, 2019
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:
A White House official, speaking on background: Our goal has always been Mars. We’ve asked Congress for additional resources to get to the Moon by 2024, which will enable us to get to Mars roughly a decade after creating a sustainable presence on the Moon.
— Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust) June 7, 2019
As @POTUS said, @NASA is using the Moon to send humans to Mars! Right now, @MarsCuriosity and @NASAInSight are on Mars and will soon be joined by the Mars 2020 rover and the Mars helicopter. pic.twitter.com/Br1sTYfNzd
— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) June 7, 2019
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.