In the final days of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made a last-minute bid for the single-issue astrophile vote.
“I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low Earth orbit activity,” Trump declared, at a late October rally in the Sunshine State. “Instead, we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.”
His campaign then released a surprisingly detailed and ambitious space agenda — one that called on NASA to stop wasting time on “politically correct environmental monitoring” and start figuring out how to send humans to the moons of Jupiter.
On Tuesday, Trump took one small step toward realizing his space plans. Surrounded by a half-dozen lawmakers from Texas and Florida, the president signed a bill that adds human exploration of Mars to NASA’s list of official objectives. Specifically, the law directs the agency to develop a plan for a “crewed mission to Mars in the 2030s.” It also requires NASA to find ways to “extend human presence, including potential human habitation on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st century.”
Trump’s initial budget proposal allocated $19.1 billion in funding for NASA, which would have represented a modest reduction in the agency’s budget. The law he signed Tuesday authorizes $19.5 billion.
After signing the legislation, Trump gave his pen to Texas senator Ted Cruz as a souvenir, a move the Dallas Morning News interpreted as a “peace offering” to the president’s former rival (whose support Trump may need to get his health-care bill through the Senate).
At a time when the White House is calling for drastic cutbacks in anti-poverty spending, Trump’s Mars ambition may seem like a frivolous expense. But when one considers the administration’s attitude toward climate change, exploring “potential human habitation on another celestial body” starts to look like a necessity.