President Trump has made a long-distance call to Peggy Whitson, a decorated NASA astronaut who just broke the US record for the most cumulative days spent in orbit.
Whitson and her astronaut colleague Jack Fischer took Trump’s call at the International Space Station (ISS) live on NASA Television on April 24. Their conversation covered everything from getting to Mars, microgravity’s effects on the human body, and the necessity of drinking water recycled from urine.
Trump was flanked by his daughter Ivanka in the Oval Office, as well as NASA astronaut Kate Rubin. He congratulated Whitson then peppered her and Fischer with questions.
“How does it feel to have broken such a big and important record?” Trump asked Whitson, who floated weightless in front of a large banner that said, “Congrats Peggy!! New U.S. High-Time Space Ninja”.
She told Trump that it was a “huge honour,” and gave credit to NASA employees on the ground for making her achievement possible.
Whitson also brought up the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which Trump signed into law on March 21.
“We’re all very much looking forward to, as directed by your new NASA bill, … getting to Mars in the 2030s,” she said.
When Trump asked the two astronauts what NASA was learning from work conducted on the ISS, Whitson rattled off a number of recent experiments and engineering efforts.
“[The space station] is providing a key bridge from learning on Earth to going somewhere in deep space,” she said. “We need to understand how microgravity is affecting our bodies, and we need to understand it deeply.”
She also noted the great lengths engineers and astronauts are going through to make deep-space travel feasible.
“We’re also cleaning up our urine and making it drinkable,” she said.
Trump responded: “That’s good, I’m glad to hear that. Better you than me.”
He then asked the two crew members how it felt to be in space.
“Sir, it was awesome,” said Fischer, who joined the crew aboard the ISS four days ago aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, adding that he arrived with “his Russian colleague,” cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhin. “And now I’m talking to the President of the United States while hanging from a wall.”
The president said he’d try to get NASA astronauts to Mars during his first term, “and at worst during my second term, so we’ll try to speed it up a little.”
With NASA’s current projected funding level of $US19.5 billion (about 0.5% of the national budget) getting people to Mars in a few years’ time is not likely. By comparison, the space agency’s funding level during the Apollo moon missions exceeded 4.5% of the national budget — about nine times higher.
Also, NASA’s current stated plan is to reach Mars by 2033.
However, the unnamed mission-in-planning won’t put any boots on the ground there. Instead, a crew of four people will depart from a small, newly built space station near the moon, then orbit the red planet (and potentially fly by Venus along the way).
That mission is neither for the faint of heart nor the claustrophobic: The round-trip from Earth to Mars will happen inside a 41-ton tube called the Deep Space Transport, and it may take as long as 3 years.
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