President Donald Trump isn’t exactly known for his science literacy.
He has publicly questioned the need for exercise, called climate change a hoax, and has yet to appoint a science advisor. His pick for NASA administrator — the divisive Republican congressman Jim Bridenstine — is bogged down in the Senate due to bipartisan opposition to his nomination.
But hey, at least Trump seems to have something resembling a passing interest in arguably the most famous rocket company in the world: SpaceX.
A new video released by CNBC shows Trump talking about Elon Musk’s SpaceX and other billionaires who are becoming more committed to space exploration in general.
“NASA’s making tremendous strides, and we’re using a lot of private money. A lot of people that — they love rockets, and they’re rich,” Trump said during a cabinet meeting. “So, they’re going to be a little less rich probably, but a lot of rockets are going up. We’re really at the forefront. Nobody is doing what we’re doing.”
Fair. It’s also nice to hear Trump admit that the U.S. is doing amazing, unique things in space after claiming that the nation ceded its leadership.
But perhaps the most telling part of Trump’s off-the-cuff space comments was his apparent awe at the idea of SpaceX landing rockets back on Earth after flying them to space.
“I don’t know if you saw last with Elon [Musk] with the rocket boosters where they’re coming back down,” Trump added, evidently referring to the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket on Feb. 6.
“To me, that was more amazing than watching the rocket go up because I’ve never seen that before; nobody’s seen that before, where they’re saving the boosters and they came back without wings, without anything. They landed so beautifully.”
It’s fun that he’s paying attention now, but it’s also troubling that the president of the United States doesn’t seem to have been aware that SpaceX has been performing these kinds of landings for years.
While the Falcon Heavy launch and landing that he appears to have been referencing was absolutely spectacular, likely igniting the space dreams of many members of the public, it was far from the first time Musk’s company has landed rocket boosters back on Earth after launching payloads to space.
The company first landed a Falcon 9 rocket booster back on land in Cape Canaveral in 2015, following up that landing with another landing — this time on a drone ship in the ocean — in 2016 after years of failed attempts.
In fact, the company’s entire business plan is built around the idea that these rocket landings can drive down the cost of launching to space. Effectively, by landing rockets on Earth, SpaceX can refurbish them and launch them for multiple missions.
“Rich guys, they love rocket ships. And that’s good. It’s better than us paying for them,” Trump said, according to a pool report. That quote in particular reads as a dig at NASA’s expensive Space Launch System mega-rocket, which the agency is still in the process of building after years of development.
Now, on a different note, imagine that you’re a NASA employee. How would you feel watching these comments from Trump?
Doesn’t it seem as if he should be spending his time supporting NASA instead of praising a private company and simply paying lip-service to the agency he’s actually responsible for?
Even if Trump himself hasn’t been paying all that much attention to spaceflight, Trump’s political party has been supportive of the private spaceflight industry at large.
The Republican Party’s platform explicitly states that public/private partnerships are the way to go with spaceflight, and Trump’s own budget for 2019 is reflective of this.
The administration is hoping that private industry — presumably that includes SpaceX — will take over operations of the International Space Station by around 2025, allowing the U.S to end its direct investment in the program.
Let’s just hope that Trump thought about that decision a little more than he’s thought about SpaceX’s history as a rocket company.