Inside the Meter

Guest column: Judging President Donald Trump 'literally'

Editor's note: Jason Altmire is PolitiFact's Democratic guest columnist and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district from 2007-13. Read more about the guest columnist position here.

In this critique, Altmire is writing about a fact-check of a claim made by President Donald Trump about private-sector space programs, which you can read here. His post has been edited only for style and grammar.

In a March 12 fact-check, PolitiFact rates as Half True President Donald Trump’s statement that the cost of a recent SpaceX launch, estimated at $80 million, would have been "40 to 50 times" higher if the government had done "the same thing." To make sure everyone understood this was not meant as hyperbole, the president punctuated his remark by saying, "I mean, literally." 

While few would argue with the premise that the private sector can usually find efficiencies in production that result in lower costs when compared to government programs, the "40 to 50 times" higher benchmark seems absurd in this instance.

A fact-check of the statement should be relatively straight forward: determine how much it would cost NASA to do "the same thing"— produce and launch a spacecraft like the SpaceX supply mission to which the president was referring. Instead, PolitiFact provides an interesting but largely unrelated synopsis of NASA’s plans for future space exploration, while failing to directly address the question at hand.

The problem with such a comparison, as PolitiFact notes in its fact-check, is that NASA is no longer in the business of short-distance supply rockets, having turned over that work to the private sector more than a decade ago. NASA is instead focusing its long-term research and development efforts on its Space Launch System, which is designed for long distance travel with an attached capsule for astronauts.

There is simply no comparison between the two endeavors. One is a short-distance rocket designed to carry a small payload of supplies 250 miles to the International Space Station, while the other is designed to travel more than 1,000 times farther while carrying humans and large cargo.

In the end, PolitiFact concludes that the cost of one flight of NASA’s Space Launch System might indeed cost upwards of "40 to 50 times" more than one SpaceX flight to the International Space Station. But that is not what President Trump said. 

Although Trump’s specific cost comparison was clearly a wild exaggeration, his more general point was not. Still, in regard to the larger issue of private sector efficiency vs. perceived government waste, PolitiFact effectively highlights the instances where government spending on space initiatives has led to lower costs for private sector companies, including the $821 million Congress appropriated in 2011 to boost development of private space flight.

Additionally, NASA shares in the design and development costs of SpaceX rockets, not to mention the decades of publicly funded research and development that has boosted the aeronautics industry. Even routine costs, like maintaining and providing security at the launch site, are largely funded with public monies. The private space industry has also benefited greatly from the publicly funded government contracts which pay for the supply missions. Without all these federal investments, the costs associated with private space flight would undoubtedly be much higher. 

In rating Trump’s claim Half True, PolitiFact gives the president the benefit of the doubt in getting the $80 million cost of the SpaceX mission right, but downgrades his rating based upon his comparison to what the same mission would have cost the government. But PolitiFact never explicitly provides a cost estimate for such a mission because NASA has delegated the costs of those small-scale programs to private industry.

PolitiFact does, however, go to great lengths to document what NASA can do with "40 to 50 times" more money than SpaceX spent on its most recent 250-mile supply mission. The answer provides such a vast difference in scope of mission that the president’s numeric comparison, which he himself pointed out was intended to interpreted "literally," must be rated as false. His facts were simply too far off to earn the benefit of the doubt.