"I don't know if you saw last with Elon — with the rocket boosters where they're coming back down," Trump said. "To me, that was more amazing than watching the rocket go up because I've never seen that before. Nobody has seen it before, where they're saving the boosters. They came back without wings or without anything, they landed so beautifully."
Last month the space company succeeded in the maiden launch of its Falcon Heavy rocket, which became the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Two of the rocket's three boosters returned to Earth simultaneously, landing side-by-side on concrete pads just a few miles away from where the rocket launched.
"Rich guys, they love rocket ships," Trump said, speaking in front of a table of rocket models — including NASA's Space Launch System, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V topped with a Boeing Starliner capsule and a SpaceX Falcon 9.
Having wealthy individuals such as Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson invest in the space industry is "better than us paying for them," Trump said. The latter two billionaires own private ventures Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, respectively, which are working on rockets capable of bringing tourists to the edge of space.
"I noticed the prices of the last one, they say it cost $80 million. If the government did it, the same thing would have cost probably 40 or 50 times that amount of money," Trump said.
While Trump did not reference a SpaceX rocket by name, the company lists the price of its Falcon 9 rocket as $62 million. The new Falcon Heavy rocket is priced as low as $90 million per launch, with Musk saying the most expensive variation comes to $150 million, a remarkable discount compared with the industry.
"We're really at the forefront," Trump said of the United States' role in space, adding that "nobody is doing what we're doing."
The White House is pushing to for more private investment in space companies, which hit a record high in 2017 with $3.9 billion pouring into ventures. The administration announced plans on Feb. 12 to end NASA's funding of the International Space Station in 2025 and begin a new $150 million program to build commercial platforms in orbit.
Space habitat chief executives who spoke to CNBC at the time were optimistic about the president's proposal. No one in the industry "wants a gap like we had with the space shuttle program," NanoRacks CEO Jeff Manber said. While there are only a handful of companies working to build private space stations, two have hardware aboard the ISS and a third is preparing to launch its first module in 2020.
"It is really amazing, what's happening in regard to space and our country," Trump said.
Two advisors to President Barack Obama's administration tweeted agreement to Trump's message. Kumar Garg, who served as the senior advisor to the deputy director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, wrote in a tweet that the "commercial space sector is pushing capability at a totally different cost factor."
@KumarAGarg: Amazingly, I don't disagree. Commercial space sector is pushing capability at a totally different cost factor. If @NASA is listening, they should substantially expand space tech budget, rather than cutting it.
Phillip Larson, former senior advisor for space and innovation at the White House, similarly agreed, adding that "NASA should focus on space technology capabilities."