Space: the final frontier. Space: where President Donald Trump would like Americans to go. In uniform. To represent the biggest and greatest nation in the world. To stand at attention. To maybe do a war or maybe go to Mars but definitely to wave the Stars and Stripes in the wind or not-wind of other orbits.
We don’t know much about Trump’s military plans for space, which supposedly will start with a soon-to-be-incorporated military command that Vice President Mike Pence announced Thursday — or at least we don’t know much in the way of details, which, as so often is the case with loud Trumpian schemes, are something that don’t yet seem to exist. We know that Trump is pitching Space Force as a sixth branch of the military, a plan that has won the support or at least besieged acceptance of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who previously suggested that such a program would “present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.” We know that the ambitions are varied and flashy, and may or may not be tied to the many hypothetical schemes Trump has shoved toward NASA: The president has said, variously, that he wants to stage a seventh manned mission to the moon, that he intends for a U.S. space station to permanently orbit the moon, and that he plans to send an American crew to Mars, pronto. We know that the odds of any of these things happening are poor, at least with any kind of immediacy: NASA’s funding is near an all-time low relative to the federal budget, and would be lower still had Trump had his way with the 2018 federal budget. Oh — and we know that Trump thinks his spaceward plans will sell, literally: The Trump 2020 campaign said Thursday that supporters would soon be able to buy swag emblazoned with the words “Mars Awaits.”
“Space Force all the way!” he tweeted.
In the end, all the Space Force talk matters about as much as any other grandiose and detail-free plan Trump has advanced. The border wall! Extraordinary health care! Peace in the Middle East! North Korea! Putin! The ideas ebb and flow, having done exactly what they were intended to (fill chyrons) and coming with exactly none of the terrible drudgery of actually advancing policy. If humans land on Mars in our lifetimes, it won’t be because of Donald Trump.
So why is Trump so fixated on the great beyond? Trump was 23 years old when Apollo 11 touched down on the moon, and in the years since, space exploration has steadily slipped from its place as a major American concern: Its funding made up 4.41 percent of the federal budget in 1966, and is at just 0.5 percent today. This isn’t a reflection of budget bloat or American permawars or our broken health care system or Turbotax’s stranglehold on our sad, heavy system of governance — or at least it’s mostly not. It’s more that space exploration was initially tied to the space race — it wasn’t so much about the glory of scientific pursuits as it was about beating the Soviets to them. For Trump, space exists now as it existed at the height of the Cold War: a marketing campaign. That’s why he’s not interested in so much of what NASA does — the WFIRST mission or education programs or the work of the International Space Station, all of which the administration has attempted to defund — and instead cares only for the marquee items, the ones that it’s easy to point to and say: We won. Or maybe more specifically: I won.