It’s hard to know if President Donald Trump has had much fun in the three months he’s been in the White House. It’s certain he’s not having fun this week, what with his 100-day report card coming and the likelihood that somebody is going to be grounded if he doesn’t gets those grades in health care, infrastructure and tax reform up.
So it had to be a nice break for Trump on Monday morning when he got the opportunity to call the International Space Station from the Oval Office to congratulate station commander Peggy Whitson for breaking America’s long-duration space flight record, at 534 days over the course of three missions, as well to chat with newly arrived astronaut Jack Fisher. Trump was flanked by his daughter Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins.
Talking to astronauts in space is one of those little showpiece perks that’s hard for any President to get wrong, and that includes Trump. But that’s not to say the President didn’t skid into a few moments of conversational hydroplaning. Here are the highlights and lowlights.
00:01: Trump begins the conversation with, “Station, this is your President. Do you hear me?” This formulation is NASA protocol, with every social call required to begin with “Station this is [your name here.]” Presidents can bend the rules, though, and in 2015, Barack Obama chose a slightly folksier “Come in International Space Station, this is President Barack Obama.” Trump might want to drop the possessive pronoun next time, although given the fact that he referred to the United States Armed Forces as “my military” less than two weeks ago, we might have to get used to this.
00:35: Whitson confirms that she can hear the White House, and Trump responds, “Well that’s what we like. Great American equipment that works.” It’s a nice touch. NASA builds deeply cool stuff and U.S. contractors and subcontactors deserve the props.
01:08: Reading from a script, Trump introduces Whitson but pronounces her name Whatson. Somewhere, Dr. Seuss files an intellectual property claim.
03:14: Whitson tells Trump that all of NASA is excited about missions to Mars in the 2030s, “as directed by your new NASA bill.” This is how it’s done and Whitson, a pro, knows it. In March, Trump signed a NASA spending request that included the Mars target and, while it’s the very same target Obama included his own requests, credit for the brainstorm always goes to the guy behind the desk. That’s how you ensure that you get the same goodies next year.
05:05: The conversation turns to space station technology, and Whitson reports that astronauts recycle their urine into drinking water. Trump laughs and responds, “Better you than me.” We shall move on and let future historians parse all of the layers in this.
07:20: Trump asks Whitson, “What do you see as timing for actually sending humans to Mars? Is there a schedule and when would you see that happening?” This is, um, awkward. There is indeed a schedule. It is the 2030s - as directed by that NASA bill. Whitson, who may be thinking that another 534 days look pretty good right about now, fields that wild pitch as well as she can: “Well, I think as your bill directed, it will be approximately in the 2030s.” She pivots quickly to talk about all of the hardware that is being built to make the mission possible and she gets out of the inning reasonably cleanly.
08:02: But not entirely cleanly. Trump responds, “Well we want to try and do it during my first term or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit, OK?” Presidential jokes always get laughs - another Oval Office perk - and this one does too, though the air-to-ground lag time gives this one the feel of something the crew had to chew on first.
14:00: Aerospace has never been as much of an entrepreneur’s business as it is now, and Trump gives props to the job creators, adding, “I have many friends that are so excited about space they want to get involved.” He does not name the friends. No word if they include Pavarotti and Frederick Douglass.
16:32: After Fisher takes a feel-good minute to tout STEM education for the kids watching the livestream, Trump makes a head-snapping turn. “I have to say there’s tremendous military application in space,” he says. “We’re rebuilding our military like never before.” The sound you hear after that is china breaking in Europe and Moscow. January of this year marked the 50th anniversary of what is informally known as The Outer Space Treaty, an international accord that, among other things, explicitly prohibits the militarization of space. So, um, happy 50th. At least it means STEM jobs.
16:56: Wrapping up, Trump asks, “What is next for Americans in space?” Then, reading from his script, he answers, “I’m very proud that I just signed a bill committing NASA to the aim of sending American astronauts to Mars.” Just guessing here, but the timeline might be right around the 2030s.