President Donald trump placed a call to Commander Peggy Whitson and Flight Engineer Jack Fischer on board the International Space Station. Whitson just achieved the longest cumulative time in space of any NASA astronaut. Trump was flanked by his daughter and political advisor Ivanka and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins in the Oval Office. The conversation, according to NBC News, touched on space exploration and the need for STEM education, especially for young girls.

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Talk strayed into the subject of humans going to Mars, which is when the call got interesting.

Trump asked Whitson when Americans are scheduled to go to Mars. Commander Whitson replied in the 2030s, as per the Journey to Mars plan that was ratified in the recent NASA authorization bill the president signed. Trump responded, "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?"

Whitson responded, with a laugh, “We’ll do our best.”

The exchange has elicited some eye rolls in social media.

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Trump has proposed a small cut to NASA’s budget for FY 2018 and at least one space agency official has suggested that flat budgets are in store for the next five years. Getting people to Mars by 2030 would be a challenge in such circumstances. Doing it by 2020 or 2024 would require a joint effort with the Hogwarts School of Magic.

Four possibilities suggest themselves.

The first, which most people suspect, is that POTUS has committed a gaffe and that he is unaware of the challenges of mounting a Mars expedition.

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The second, Trump was engaging in some humor. One never knows with this POTUS.

The third, Trump believes Elon Musk when he claims that SpaceX can launch humans to Mars by 2024.

The fourth, the president was really thinking about the moon and misspoke. The media has already reported that the Trump administration is contemplating circumnavigating the moon by 2019. With a good, well-funded and focused effort, Americans could very well be back on the lunar surface by 2024.

In the meantime, Trump did not open his mind about who he wants as NASA administrator or when the National Space Council will be up and operating. That is a pity. He event, covered as it was by cable news channels, would have been perfect for such announcements.

Presidents have been calling astronauts on space missions for decades. The most famous occasion happened when President Richard Nixon called the Apollo 11 astronauts while they were on the lunar surface.

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President Reagan used to call shuttle astronauts frequently. Even Barack Obama, not exactly a supporter of space exploration, would place calls to astronauts in orbit from time to time. American presidents recognize the importance of space exploration enough to want to be in what amounts to photo ops, if not necessarily sufficient to fully fund such activities.

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