When Gene Cernan, the last U.S. astronaut to walk on the Moon, died only days before President Trump's inauguration, he was a disappointed man. Cernan had predicted after his Moon mission that Americans would land on Mars before the end of the 20th Century. It never happened. Like the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, America's manned space program built an early lead, and then (to quote Atlanta's coach) ran out of gas.
Donald Trump could be the president who turns that around. He has had multiple meetings with SpaceX founder and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, who is a leading proponent of colonizing Mars. Musk argues, along with other advocates of missions to the Red Planet, that it is just a matter of time before Earth suffers another mass-extinction event like the one that wiped out the dinosaurs. By the time that cataclysm befalls us, Musk says, humanity needs to be a "multi-planetary species."
Mars is the only place in the Solar System that can sustain such a vision, because of its similarities to Earth. But why would President Trump buy into this vision? He hasn't even picked a nominee to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the lead agency for space exploration. There are four big reasons to think that the more Trump talks to people like Musk, the more he will grasp the importance of Mars. In fact, deciding to get there soon could be the one thing people remember about the Trump presidency 500 years from now.
Great again. Unlike most of his fellow citizens, President Trump can remember when Americans first walked on the Moon. That event was arguably the apex of American civilization, the moment when it was clear to people all over the world that there were things only the U.S. could do. When Trump talks about making America great again, he doesn't just mean rebuilding the Lincoln Tunnel or modernizing the military, he means restoring America's sense of destiny. That sense of national mission has been dissipated by mis-steps in Washington in recent years, but it can be regained. What goal within our grasp could be more inspiring than beginning the long trek to a permanent human presence on another planet?
Earth-like. There is only one other planet in the Solar System that resembles our home sufficiently to sustain human beings permanently, and fortunately it is nearby. Granted, Mars is not ideal, with an atmosphere so thin at the surface that it resembles what is found 20 miles above the Earth. So there is a lot of radiation and no liquid water. But there is enough frozen water at the poles to cover the whole planet several yards deep if it were liquid, and the soil contains nutrients necessary to plant life. There are times when the temperature at the equator can briefly reach above 60 degrees, although it is usually below freezing. With enough investment, Mars could host a city-size colony. Much of what we need is already there.
Tech boom. The space program has given a big boost to U.S. innovation, producing commercial spinoffs that could hardly have been imagined at its inception. Among the products traceable to NASA research are artificial limbs, invisible braces, hearing implants, solar cells, scratch-resistant lenses, ventricular heart devices and the camera in your smart phone. I could go on. When the government invests in cutting-edge, goal-directed research, it always generates unexpected benefits -- some of which might not have emerged spontaneously from the marketplace. So in addition to restoring a sense of national destiny and buying insurance against species extinction, manned missions to Mars could be a boon to U.S. technology.
Political benefits. Much of NASA's space operations and research infrastructure is located in states crucial to President Trump's election such as the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Texas. The climate there is more conducive to space activities than the oft-frozen north. In addition, aerospace companies that once were concentrated in the warm climate of California (where Trump can't win) are migrating to places like Alabama and Colorado (where he can). So major investment in a Mars program would tend to create jobs in locations where Trump has a following. Did I mention NASA also has a major research presence in Ohio -- the swing state Republicans must carry to hold the White House?
Thus, even if Present Trump was a cold, calculating political operator -- which he clearly is not -- Mars would make sense. It connects on multiple levels with the movement Mr. Trump fashioned to get to the White House, and would help solidify his reputation as a leader who thinks imaginatively about the future. Depending on what path forward the president selects for the manned space program, American astronauts could be orbiting the Red Planet before the end of Trump's second term. That's a lot faster than the leisurely pace of NASA's current "journey to Mars," which never seemed to have much support from Trump's predecessor anyway.
Even if President Trump elected not to run again, sending astronauts to Mars could be the most memorable legacy of his time in the White House. President Kennedy had been gone over five years when Neil Armstrong first stepped on the Moon, but everyone knew he was there because of Kennedy's vision.