President Donald Trump has spent days feuding with progressive House Democrats, but on Friday he stoked another conflict, pitting his NASA chief against the first men to travel to the moon as they debated traveling directly to Mars.
During a gathering in the Oval Office to commemorate Saturday’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, Trump grilled NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine and former astronauts Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin over the logistics of putting a man on Mars as well as the recent progress of NASA.
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“We don’t know what we’re going to find on Mars, but it certainly is going to be a trip that’s very interesting,” Trump said, after recounting the Apollo 11 mission and his White House’s focus on reviving the U.S. space program. “To get to Mars, you have to land on the moon, they say.”
But, he asked, is it possible to bypass the moon and go straight to Mars?
“We need to use the moon as a proving ground,” Bridenstine responded, explaining to the president that for a trip to Mars, “we’re going to have to be there for a long period of time, so we need to learn how to live and work on another world.”
The administrator added that an additional wrinkle of Mars travel is that the red planet is only on the same side of the sun as Earth about once every two years. “So we have to be prepared to stay on Mars for long periods of time; we prove that out — on the moon — then we go onto Mars.”
Trump then turned to Collins. “How do you feel about it?” he asked.
“Mars direct,” Collins nodded.
“You like it direct?” Trump repeated. When Collins answered in the affirmative again, the president turned back to Bridenstine, seemingly convinced, and unperturbed by Aldrin’s dismissal of Collins as “impatient.”
“It seems to me, Mars direct,” Trump shrugged. “I mean who knows better than these people? What about the concept of Mars direct?”
Bridenstine again explained the drawbacks of bypassing the moon. “Think about this: We need to use the resources of another world in order to live and work for long periods of time,” he said, adding that the water-ice found on the moon would be an excellent source of life support and rocket fuel for a Mars mission as well as an untapped market for commercial space companies.
‘But Jim, isn’t it correct that we haven’t landed that close to that part of the moon?” Trump countered, which Bridenstine conceded was true.
Bridenstine tried again to sway the dubious-sounding commander in chief.
“I think, sir, the best way to think about it is, we live and learn how to work on the moon but we launch to Mars form a space station that we have in orbit around the moon,” he said. “A space station we call ‘Gateway.’ … With a gateway we will have more access to more parts of the solar system with humans than we could ever have otherwise.”
With that, Trump nodded, then moved on to praising Bridenstine’s record as NASA chief. But Aldrin didn’t agree.
“Actually, I’ve been a little disappointed over the last 10 or 15 years,” he said.
Aldrin complained that in recent years, the U.S. space program has been unable to match the accomplishments of its early years, pointing out that the U.S. has the “No. 1 spacecraft and they cannot get into lunar orbit with significant maneuver capability,” calling it a “great disappointment.”
Trump turned back to Bridenstine. “How do you feel about that, Jim?” he asked.
“We’re working on it,” Bridenstine responded, adding that the Orion crew capsule was currently being worked on.
“We’ll I’d like to have you also listen to the other side,” Trump said, “Because some people would like to do it a different way. So you’ll listen to Buzz and some of the other people. I know this has been going on for a little while, and we’re so advanced, but I would like to listen to other side, OK?”
“Yes, sir,” Bridenstine nodded.
The exchange appeared to satisfy Aldrin, who tweeted afterward of his “excellent meeting” with the president. “Keep America Great in Space!!”