President Donald Trump on Friday (Sept. 20) hailed the "tremendous" work by the U.S. space program to return astronauts to the moon by 2024. But the ultimate goal is Mars, Trump said.
"We're going to Mars," Trump told reporters after a White House meeting with Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Mars, Trump added, is a more exciting target than the moon.
"We're stopping at the moon. The moon is actually a launching pad," Trump said. "That's why we're stopping at the moon. I said, 'Hey, we've done the moon. That's not so exciting.' So we'll be doing the moon. But we'll really be doing Mars."
Watch: Trump Talks Moon & Mars with Australia's Prime Minister (opens in new tab)
Related: Presidential Visions for Space Exploration: From Ike to Trump (opens in new tab)
To Mars from the moon
U.S. space officials said that the moon will be a staging ground for eventual crewed missions to Mars, Trump said.
NASA's deadline for a 2024 return to the moon by astronauts was unveiled in March by Vice President Mike Pence. But the moon was already a primary goal for the Trump administration due to Space Policy Directive 1, a directive signed by Trump in December 2017 ordering NASA to send astronauts to the moon and aim for Mars.
In June, however, Trump took to Twitter to criticize NASA's focus on the moon just weeks before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. "For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon — We did that 50 years ago," he wrote (opens in new tab), stressing that Mars should be the goal. NASA chief Jim Bridenstine has since stressed that the moon is a key waystation for future crewed missions to Mars.
NASA's 2024 moon landing push is the primary goal of its Artemis program, which is developing the massive Space Launch System megarocket and Orion spacecraft to fly astronauts to and from the lunar neighborhood. NASA is also developing plans for a station near the moon, called the Lunar Gateway, to serve as a staging ground for lunar surface exploration.
On Friday, Trump said NASA was making "tremendous progress" toward Mars, and also lauded the work of commercial companies like SpaceX, led by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos. Both companies have test sites in Texas and have leased launch facilities at NASA's Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
"In addition, rich people like to send up rocket ships. So between Bezos and Elon Musk and others, we're leasing them our launch facilities, which you can't get," Trump said. "And they’ve actually done very well. They've said they've had great success."
To Australia's Prime Minister Morrison Trump said: "But rich people in this country — I don't know about your country — but they like building rocket ships and sending them up, and it’s okay with us."
Trump and Morrison passed on a question asking whether an Australian astronaut would eventually fly with NASA sometime soon. The Australian Space Agency officially formed in 2018.
An international push to the moon
Unlike the Apollo era, in which NASA was racing the then-Soviet Union to the moon, the U.S. space agency is not going it alone. The European Space Agency is building the service module for Orion and NASA, this year, has received commitments from Canada and Japan to cooperate on lunar exploration.
On Saturday (Sept. 21), NASA added the Australian Space Agency to its cadre of moon partners with an agreement to cooperate on future lunar projects. Australian Space Agency head Megan Clark and NASA's Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard signed a joint statement of intent for space cooperation.
Morrison said his country is looking beyond the moon.
"We’re backing Australian businesses to the moon, and even Mars, and back," Morrison said in a statement (opens in new tab).
"We are honored by today's statement and the commitment of our friends from Australia to support us in our mission to return to the moon by 2024 with the Artemis program," Morhard said in a NASA statement (opens in new tab). "The strong relationship between NASA and the Australian Space Agency affirms NASA's commitment to establish sustainable exploration with our commercial and international partners by 2028."
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