Trump Calls Space Station's Record-Breaking Commander, Peggy Whitson | NBC Southern California
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Trump Calls Space Station's Record-Breaking Commander, Peggy Whitson

Trump told Peggy Whitson that he wants an astronaut to get to Mars in his first or second term as president

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    President Donald Trump speaks with Peggy Whitson, the commander of the International Space Station and the American astronaut to have spent the longest time in space, on what funding means to NASA, when the first human might travel to Mars and the realities of living in space. 

    (Published Monday, April 24, 2017)

    President Donald Trump spoke to the commander of the orbiting International Space Station Monday, Peggy Whitson, the day she became the American astronaut to have spent the most time in space.

    Early Monday, the International Space Station commander surpassed the record of 534 days, two hours and 48 minutes for most accumulated time in orbit by an American. That record was set last year by Jeffrey Williams.

    Trump called it "a special day in the glorious history of American spaceflight," and asked Whitson how it felt to have set the record.

    She called it "a huge honor" and thanked the NASA crew that helped make it possible.

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    Trump spent some of the call talking about his plan for a manned mission to Mars by 2030, and indicated he wants to speed up the timeline outlined in a bill he signed last month. The new legislation added human exploration of Mars to NASA's mission and authorized $19.5 billion in spending for organization for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

    But Monday, Trump said he wants an astronaut to get to Mars in his first or second term as president, "so we'll have to speed that up a little bit."

    Whitson said she and NASA were game for the mission. 

    "We are absolutely ready to go to Mars. It's going to be a fantastic journey," she said.

    Whitson was already the world's most experienced spacewoman and female spacewalker and, at 57, the oldest woman in space, when she set the American record for most time in space. The world record, 879 days, is held by Russian Gennady Padalka.

    By the time the biochemist returns to Earth in September, she'll have logged 666 days in orbit over three flights. Her current stretch in space was extended to September because an empty seat will be available on a Russian Soyuz capsule for her return.

    The call was partly intended to discuss the "importance of encouraging women to pursue careers" in STEM — science, education, technology and math — fields.

    Astronaut Kate Rubins and Trump's daughter, Ivanka Trump, whose White House portfolio involves women's empowerment, also took part in the call from the White House, and discussed STEM fields with Whitson.

    The interview had some light moments. 

    Trump asked Whitson's crewmate Jack Fischer to describe how he felt joining her on the space station. Fischer described the "amazing" international effort that went into the ship and added, "Oh and then now i'm talking to the president of the United States while hanging from a wall."

    He called Whitson the station's "resident space ninja" as she did a floating somersault, and mentioned that he "had my coffee in floaty ball form."

    "Sir," he continued. "It was delicious."

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    Whitson, asked to describe what the astronauts were learning from their time in space, said they were practicing with the life-support system with an eye toward reaching Mars. One part of that is cleaning urine and making it drinkable, she noted.

    "I'm glad to hear that," Trump replied. "Better you than me."