NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine claims “nothing has changed” after President Trump seemed to question the space agency’s plans to return humans to the Moon in a tweet last week. While speaking at NASA Glenn Research Center, Bridenstine argued that the Moon is still a valuable proving ground for the eventual goal of getting to Mars, which is what the president was trying to say.
“Some people have tried to read more into this than there is,” Bridenstine said during a town hall meeting at Glenn in Cleveland, Ohio. “But here’s the thing: We’re going to Mars. The Moon is a waypoint. We need to learn how to live and work on another world.”
On Friday afternoon, Trump caused a lot of confusion when he tweeted that “NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon” since the agency landed humans on the lunar surface 50 years ago. Instead, “They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars (of which the Moon is a part), Defense and Science!” according to the president.
For a few hours, the tweet threw the space world into a slight panic since the White House has been pushing NASA to send humans back to the Moon for the last two years. The very first space policy directive that Trump signed in December 2017 called on NASA to put humans on the lunar surface again. In May, Trump asked Congress for an additional $1.6 billion for NASA, on top of his annual budget request for the agency, in order to expedite plans to go back to the Moon. In response, NASA has branded this lunar initiative Artemis, and the agency is aiming to send the first woman to the Moon through the program.
The tweet seemed to indicate that NASA should not be talking about these plans that the administration has asked the agency to make. However, Bridenstine claimed that “nothing has changed” and that NASA’s ultimate goal is to get to Mars in the future. “So yes, we’re going to Mars,” said Bridenstine. “The Moon is the way to get there. And we’ve got a lot of very exciting activities going on Mars right now.”
There was some additional confusion over Trump’s statement that the Moon “is a part” of Mars since they are separate worlds. However, Bridenstine argued that the president was simply saying that the Moon is needed for NASA to eventually get to the Red Planet someday. Many NASA officials and engineers have argued that the lunar surface is a great place for testing out various technologies, like landers and habitats, that will be needed when people go to Mars. “If you read his tweet, he talks about going to Mars, and he says in parentheses that the Moon is a part of that,” Bridenstine said. “In other words, we’re going to the Moon in order to get to Mars.”
Bridenstine also seemed to suggest that the tweet was inspired by a TV news interview. On Friday, NASA’s chief financial officer, Jeff DeWit, did an interview on Fox Business about the agency’s plans to open up the International Space Station to more commercial business opportunities — a separate initiative by NASA aimed at stimulating the private space industry. The conversation eventually touched on NASA’s Artemis program, which may have led to the president’s tweet.
“We’ll just say that the news guy on the other end started arguing about why go to the Moon; we’ve been to the Moon, why go to the Moon?” said Bridenstine. “And it ended up getting bogged down in this argument about whether or not the Moon is valuable, which is, quite frankly, not where we want to be.”