On a long distance call from the Oval Office to the International Space Station in April, Donald Trump questioned US astronaut Peggy Whitson on NASA’s plans for a manned space flight to Mars by 2030. “We want to try it during my first term, or at worst during my second term, so we’ll have to speed that up a little bit”, he joked.

President Trump’s desire to put “American footprints on distant worlds” is an ambition shared by his nomination for NASA Administrator: Congressman Jim Bridenstine. In a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Commerce Committee following his nomination he writes: “With NASA’s global leadership, we will pioneer the solar system, sending humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond.” Does this vision hint at a future for NASA that more militaristic than scientific?

NASA was formed in 1958 shortly after the Soviet Union successfully launched the Sputnik space satellite. At the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower could not stand by as America’s technological superiority slipped from his hands. The driving force behind the Space Race was an assertion of military and political dominance, culminating in the 1969 moon landing. Over 125 million viewers in America crowded around their TV sets to watch Neil Armstrong’s first steps on lunar soil. But even at the peak of NASA’s achievement, polls show that Americans only marginally believed that space exploration was worth the price tag. Even Eisenhower, who had since handed the reins over to President Kennedy, commented that “anybody who would spend $40 billion in a race to the moon for national prestige is nuts”. The actual cost of the Apollo program was a mere $25.4 billion (around $150 billion today) – enough to draw NASA’s manned exploration of the moon to an end in 1972. After all, America ruled the skies once again.

In the decades that followed, NASA’s remit expanded to include robotic space probes that have visited every planet in the solar system and telescopes that orbit the Earth allow scientists to explore deep space. However, the organisation still struggles to understand its purpose: it is to advance science, in the pursuit of knowledge about the Earth and its place in the Universe, or developing and demonstrating military and political strength?

Last year Bridenstine introduced the (failed) American Space Renaissance Act, which seeks to secure America as the “preeminent spacefaring nation” – and makes his priority clear. Space technology, according to the Congressman, should project military strength in the interest of national security. As he later wrote in a blog post: “This is our Sputnik moment”. For this purpose Bridenstine envisions a permanent outpost on the moon, while it seems Trump favours boots on Mars as an immediate goal. The rationale is the same: America once again finds its global standing threatened.

Yet manned space exploration is as much a vanity project as it is a military strategy. NASA paid Russia to transport Peggy Whitson to the International Space Station on a Soyuz rocket – as they do for all US astronauts. As NASA Administrator, Bridenstine would put an end to this “dependency on unfriendly nations”. Meanwhile, China currently have rovers and machines on the moon, and are preparing for a manned moon landing. Neither he nor Trump can abide this.

NASA has a proud record of expanding human knowledge through un-manned space missions. Notably the Cassini probe made its final approach to Saturn earlier this month, after thirteen years of groundbreaking research into the planet’s moons, rings and atmosphere. The going is good. Could this record be jeopardised by bringing back manned missions for the sake of America’s ego? 

The scientific case for further human exploration of the Solar System is weak: placing astronauts on a mission is expensive, and often comes at the loss of the science experiments onboard. The cost of Cassini was less than $4 billion; a recent NASA report estimates the cost of landing a crew on Mars at $450 billion. And as robotics and artificial intelligence advance, human cargo can only be justified in exceptional circumstances.

Back on the ground, leading scientists have expressed concern that under Bridenstine NASA funds will be diverted away from Earth science. He is known as a climate-change denier: in 2013 he asked Obama to apologise for the amount of funding spent on climate science. As Representative for Oklahoma, he would rather see the money spent on weather science to improve the forecasting of tornadoes. Climate science and weather science are, or course, two sides of the same coin. In fact, climate change has been linked to the increasing severity of tornado outbreaksTrump and Bridenstine’s desire to colonise other worlds may be premature given humanity’s record at looking after our own pale blue dot. As astrophysicist Lucianne Walkowicz has said: “It is hubris to believe that interplanetary colonization alone will save us from ourselves… let’s not use Mars as a backup planet”.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey a Hilton Hotel orbits the Earth; as a planet, it seems we are behind schedule. From a scientific perspective, this should not be regarded as a failure. Human space exploration is rarely the most effective way to expand our knowledge of the Universe. But in 2017, with fewer opportunities for colonisation on Earth, a Trump Tower on Mars may be one way to Make America Great Again.

About the author

THOMAS LEWTON is a science writer and documentary filmmaker, whose freelance film and photography work has featured on the BBC, VICE and the Guardian.