Astronaut Peggy Whitson broke the US record for most time spent in space on Monday, and received a phone call from Donald Trump in which the president congratulated her and urged Nasa to reach Mars ahead of his own proposed schedule.
Whitson, 57, reached her 534th day in space early on Monday morning. The president called her from the Oval Office, where he sat flanked by his daughter and senior adviser, Ivanka Trump, and Dr Kate Rubins, another Nasa astronaut.
“On behalf of our nation and on behalf of the world I’d like to congratulate you,” Trump told Whitson, who hovered alongside another astronaut, Jack Fischer, on the International Space Station.
“To break a record like this,” Whitson said, “it’s an honor for me basically to be representing all the folks at Nasa who make this spaceflight possible and who make me setting this record feasible.”
Trump said it was “very exciting” to speak with “great, great Americans, our finest”, and occasionally expressed awe at details of spaceflight. “I wouldn’t want to be flying 17,000 miles per hour,” he said, “but that’s what you do.”
The president glanced down to read a sheet of paper on his desk: “What are we learning by being in space?”
Whitson answered that Nasa was conducting hundreds of investigations on the space station, including studies on how deep space affects the body, how best to operate life-support systems and how to use solar power to break apart and recombine the molecules of carbon dioxide and water.
“Water is such a precious resource up here that we’re also cleaning up our urine and making it drinkable,” Whitson said.
“That’s good,” the president replied. “I’m glad to hear that. Better you than me.”
Besides his goal to send a crewed mission to Mars, Trump has said little about his intentions for Nasa. His proposed budget would cut the agency’s spending by about $200m, to about $19.1bn. It would also cancel Nasa’s asteroid redirect mission and a plan to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa, one of the top candidates in the search for life.
Trump’s budget request also called for Nasa to end several climate science programs and to terminate its education program.
In the Oval Office on Monday, the president periodically glanced away from the camera that was transmitting his image into orbit. Off camera stood his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, chief of staff Reince Priebus, press secretary Sean Spicer and the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos.
Turning back to the screen that broadcast the astronauts’ image, Trump asked: “Tell me, Mars, what do you see a timing for actually sending humans?”
“Well, I think as your bill directed it would be in the 2030s,” Whitson said, alluding to a bill signed by the president last month, which outlined a mission by 2033. “Unfortunately spaceflight takes a lot of time and money, so getting there will take some international cooperation.”
“Well, I think we want to do it in my first term or at worst in my second term,” Trump said, “so I think we’ll have to speed that up a little bit.”
Nasa has for years had a long-term goal of sending a crew to Mars, and has worked hard in recent years to develop a new rocket, the Space Launch System, that would be the most powerful spacecraft ever flown. The agency has also tried to learn as much as possible about how to protect humans during months of high-radiation and microgravity conditions in deep space.
At the end of the call, Trump returned to the goal: “So which one of you is ready to go to Mars?” He tapped Rubins on the shoulder: “She’d like to go to Mars very quickly.”
Whitson answered with an encouragement to young people to study science, and said: “We’re absolutely very ready to go to Mars, all of us would be very happy to go.”
“I’ve been dealing with politicians so much,” the president said. “I’m so much more impressed by these people, you have no idea.”
Trump’s daughter called Whitson “an incredible inspiration to us all” and said she hoped the astronaut, who grew up in rural Iowa and earned a PhD in biochemistry before joining Nasa, would be a role model to young women. Whitson said “it took a lot longer” than she thought to become an astronaut, but added that she thought she was “better at my job because of the journey”.
Whitson ensured her place in Nasa’s history long before Monday, after nearly 30 years working for the agency. In 2008 she became the first female commander of the space station – her current mission is her second command – and in March she accomplished her eighth spacewalk, ranking her first for spacewalks by a female astronaut and fifth among all astronauts. She is scheduled to return to Earth in September, after 666 days in space.
The record for time in space had been held by Jeff Williams, a veteran of four spaceflights. Scott Kelly holds the US record for consecutive days in space, as part of a 340-day experiment with his identical twin on how life in space affects the human body. In 2015, Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka set the record for most time in space, at 879 days.
In his inaugural address, Trump said the US stood ready to “unlock the mysteries of space”. But he has not named an administrator for Nasa since Charles Bolden stepped down at the end of Barack Obama’s term. The president has left several other important science posts vacant, including any top advisers on science and technology.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters marched in Washington and other cities around the world, in support of funding for scientific research, many making explicit statements against Trump’s policies and proposals.
When his call with Whitson and Fischer ended on Monday, the president turned to the press.
“That was a little bit different,” he said.
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