How Well Does Trump Understand NASA?

President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Washington.

President Donald Trump during a cabinet meeting at the White House, Thursday, March 8, 2018, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP

As he praised the work of SpaceX, the president seemed to undermine the efforts of his own space agency.

At the end of a meeting at the White House on Thursday, President Donald Trump, flanked by members of his Cabinet, gestured to the table in front of them.

“Before me are some rocket ships,” the president said. “You haven’t seen that for this country in a long time.”

On the table stood model replicas of three rocket-launch systems, two of which are in use today and one that is still in development. Trump launched into remarks full of praise for the spaceflight industry in the United States. He highlighted private spaceflight companies and the “rich guys” who run them.

“We’re letting them use the Kennedy Space Center for a fee and, you know, rich guys, they love rocket ships,” Trump said. “That’s good. That’s better than us paying for them. And I noticed the prices of the last one, that they said it cost $80 million. If the government did it, the same thing would have cost probably 40, 50 times that amount of money. I mean, literally, when I heard $80 million—you know, I’m so used to hearing different numbers with NASA.”

At a glance, Trump’s remarks at the Thursday meeting sounded like cheerful compliments from a president proud of his nation’s spaceflight activities. But when you consider the details of NASA’s long-term strategy, they’re quite baffling. Trump offered praise for both commercial and federal space efforts. But he seemed, for a moment, to favor SpaceX over NASA.

First, some context.When Trump says the government is letting commercial companies use Kennedy Space Center, he’s referring to rental agreements between these firms and the feds to use government-owned launch facilities. SpaceX rents launchpads at Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California for its missions. Blue Origin, the spaceflight company run by Jeff Bezos, plans to use a launchpad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station to launch its New Glenn rocket. The recent rocket launch Trump referred to is the maiden flight of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which took off in February from the famed launchpad that carried Apollo astronauts to the moon. (SpaceX didn’t disclose how much the test flight cost, but says future launches will cost $90 million.)

The surprising part of Trump’s remarks is when he seems to suggest that commercial companies are better off paying for rocket launches because they’re doing it more cheaply than NASA.

This is not what NASA wants to hear.

NASA is currently working on its own rocket system, and it’s really expensive. The Space Launch System, or SLS, is an expendable launch vehicle that the space agency says will someday carry humans to the moon and Mars. NASA is building a crew capsule to go along with it, the Orion. Development costs are in the billions, and each launch will take about $1 billion.

One of the model rockets on the table at Thursday’s meeting was the SLS. And yet here was Trump, known for his love of doing things on the cheap, appearing to say that maybe the rocket his own space agency is building is too expensive.

The White House declined to answer a question about how SLS staff should interpret Trump’s comments about the financial differences between SpaceX and NASA. “NASA will continue to leverage the great work being done by its commercial partners as we lead the world in exploration of the solar system,” an official said, and pointed to a memorandum Trump signed last December about the future of the country’s space ambitions that the space-exploration community saw as a sign of his support.

Trump has long shown an appreciation for commercial spaceflight companies, and his administration wants these firms, among other things, to eventually take over parts of the International Space Station. But for some in the space community, Trump’s latest remarks underscore the idea that the president is poorly informed about the status of NASA projects. The president often speaks about programs in broad, sweeping terms.

“It’s not like he was outright bashing NASA, but clearly there was something there when he was comparing rocket prices,” said an engineer who works on the Orion capsule for one of the mission’s contractors, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press. “The most generous interpretation, I think, is ignorance of the subject on the president’s part. If he doesn’t understand the underlying tension in the space community between public and private space endeavors, then he wouldn’t realize he was saying something controversial.”

Trump spent most of his remarks Thursday talking about the engineering feats of SpaceX, not NASA. “I don’t know if you saw last—with Elon—with the rocket boosters where they’re coming back down,” he said. “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.”

The president was referring to SpaceX’s ability to return parts of its rocket system, land them upright on launchpads and drone ships, and then reuse them again in other flights. This praise may be distressing for folks working on SLS to hear, too. Most of the spaceflight industry has been moving decisively toward reusable rockets to make launches cheaper. But the SLS is not a reusable rocket, and the government has received a fair amount of criticism for spending so much money on a rocket you can’t use more than once. Regardless of that criticism—and of Trump’s apparent enthusiasm for reusable rockets—the SLS will move forward, thanks in large part to support from congressional lawmakers who represent states where the rocket is being built.

Trump mentioned Mars during his remarks—“we’ll be sending something very beautiful to Mars in the very near future”—but not the moon, a peculiar omission considering his administration’s space agenda so far. Last year, Vice President Mike Pence announced the United States would put a strong emphasis on lunar missions, marking a clear pivot from the previous administration’s Mars-focused policy. White House and NASA officials have since talked up a return to the moon, especially at meetings of the National Space Council, which Pence chairs. And Trump’s budget request for NASA, released last month, said the agency should “pursue a campaign that would establish U.S. preeminence to, around, and on the moon.”

The president is not, of course, expected to name-drop every celestial body when he talks about space, but the exclusion of the moon seemed at odds with his long-term policies.

“I’m unsure how Pence actually feels about space. Maybe he knows a lot, maybe he doesn’t know much but has policy preferences and/or intellectual curiosity, maybe he is just savvier at feigning interest and getting his staff to prep a cheat sheet after decades in politics,” the Orion engineer said. “But at least the things he says from one meeting to the next are consistent.” Pence was the one who provided the model rockets at Thursday’s meeting, the White House said, a souvenir from the recent National Space Council meeting in Florida.

In general, Trump loves talking about space, and has publicly discussed the country’s space program more than other modern presidents have in their first months in office, according to space-policy experts and historians. That’s because, as I’ve written before, space is Trump’s least controversial frontier. Space-exploration efforts historically receive strong bipartisan support and, as the Falcon Heavy flight showed last month, everyone loves a good, fiery rocket launch. Trump rarely passes up an opportunity to talk about space and praise the achievements of American astronauts, in the same way he won’t miss a chance to praise Americans in other dangerous jobs, like soldiers, police officers, and firefighters.

“We’re bringing that whole spaceflight back,” Trump said Thursday. “It’s really amazing what’s happening with regard to space and our country.”

It’s not the president’s job to know the tiny details of NASA’s engineering plans. NASA leaders know that any glowing words from the White House, however garbled, are a good thing. “If the president’s lips move and he says positive things about the space program, that’s good for the space program,” John Logsdon, a space historian and former director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, once told me. “I’m not sure Ronald Reagan knew a lot about the space program, but he said the right words.”

Trump certainly said some positive things about space exploration Thursday, but for some at NASA, they weren’t exactly the right words.