NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the record on Monday for the longest cumulative time spent in space by an American, surpassing the previous 534 days, 2 hours, and 48 minutes accrued by Jeff Williams. By the time Whitson comes back to Earth in September, she’ll have spent a total of 666 days in space.
President Donald Trump called the International Space Station on Monday to congratulate Whitson and have a quick chat with her and ISS newcomer Jack Fischer, as well as the currently-Earthbound Kate Rubins, who returned from the ISS last October.
“This is a very special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight,” Trump said during the conversation, which was live-streamed on Facebook. “Today, Commander Whitson, you have broken the record for the most total time spent in space by an American astronaut.”
“On behalf of our nation and, frankly, on behalf of the world, I’d like to congratulate you,” the president told Whitson.
“It’s a huge honor to break a record like this,” Whitson replied. She thanked everyone at NASA who made this feat possible, and expressed excitement for what the future of space exploration has in store — particularly the agency’s goal to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. “It’s a very exciting time and I’m so proud of the team.”
After some back and forth about life on the space station and about the incredibly amazing work the crew is doing as a prelude to preparing future generations for long trips into deep space and Mars, Trump took a moment to shift things into a brief left turn and bizarrely bring the military into all of this.
Trump: “There’s tremendous military application in space”
“There’s tremendous military application in space,” Trump said. “We’re rebuilding our military like never before. We’re going to have the strongest military the world has ever seen.” One has to assume he means for space to play a very significant role in that plan.
This is very far from the first time the administration has infused a militarized specter into space policy talks. During last year’s campaign trail, Vice President Mike Pence explicitly said a Trump-Pence administration would “strengthen our military space mission and assets.” Members of Trump’s NASA transition team after the election seemed to suggest the administration was looking to foster greater cooperation between civilian space parties and the military.
And earlier this month, the U.S. Air Force Space Command outright discussed scenarios in which assets would be defended from threats just as they would if they were based on land, in the sea, or in air.
This is one of the first times Trump himself has referenced the military when talking about his vision for space — and it’s incredibly weird he picked Whitson’s record-smashing moment to make this reference.
Alas, this is not a predictable presidency. Nevertheless, it’s probably a good idea to bet on a near-future where the U.S. pursues an increased defense presence in orbit. Let’s wait to see how the rest of the world will respond to that.