In 2017, Peggy Whitson broke the record for the most days spent in space by a NASA astronaut. On the day of her record, she received a video call from the White House, where Trump said he wanted to put an astronaut on Mars by the end of 2020 or by 2024.
A new book on Trump’s White House, called Team of Viper, reveals a lot more about those comments. As reported in New York Magazine’s Intelligencer, who had access to excerpts from the book, Trump suggested giving NASA unlimited funding to deliver a successful crewed Martian mission by 2020. The book is written by Cliff Sims, the former director of the White House Message Strategy.
Sims describes the event preceding the conversation with Whitson, focusing in particular on the conversation between Trump and Robert Lightfoot Jr., who was at the time the acting administrator for NASA. Trump asked what NASA’s plan for Mars was and Lightfoot explained that in the bill Trump signed there were provisions for a robotic mission in 2020 and then a human one during the 2030s.
According to Sims, Trump asked: “But is there any way we could do it by the end of my first term?” This led to uncomfortable exchanges, according to the book author, with Lightfoot explaining just how complicated going to another planet actually is. And that’s when Trump made his proposal.
“But what if I gave you all the money you could ever need to do it?” Trump asked Lightfoot. “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?” Lightfoot told him that even under that condition, it would not be achievable.
The average distance between Earth and Mars is 225 million kilometers (140 million miles) away. This is over 590 times further than any human has gone before. The trip it is expected to last two years in total, most of which would be spent in deep space with no protection from cosmic rays and most likely no way to help the astronauts if something goes wrong.
On top of those difficulties, the US currently does not have rockets or spacecraft that can deliver humans to low-Earth orbit, let alone to Mars. And that also goes for private companies. While a bigger budget for NASA would be welcome, it would not allow them to bypass the necessary steps it takes to get to the Red Planet.