NASA Boss Bill Nelson On a Space Race With China, the Future of the Space Station and More

To go from low Earth orbit to 300 E. St., Washington, D.C., it took Bill Nelson over 35 years. Nelson, then an American representative from Florida, spent six day as a spaceship payload specialist. ColumbiaBetween Jan. 12 and Jan. 18, 1986. He returned to Earth and eventually made his way to the U.S. Senate, serving from 2001 to 2019, and spending much of his tenure promoting one of his home state’s highest-profile industries—space—distinguishing himself as perhaps NASA’s most dogged legislative champion. In 2021, he was tapped to run the space show himself, when President Joe Biden appointed him NASA’s fourteenth Administrator, placing him in charge of the space agency’s sprawling, multi-state—and multi-planet—operation.
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Nelson’s cosmic remit is a big one, and he recently spoke with TIME about the job, as well as the U.S.’s present—and, much more important, long-term—ambitions in space.

NASA just completed a very good year—most spectacularly with the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, and the completed construction of the new Space Launch System [SLS]The moon rocket. To what do you attribute the space agency’s banner 2021?

NASA is like the little engine that could—”I think I can, I think I can.” And that’s attributable to the extraordinary workforce. NASA was named best federal agency to work for nine consecutive years. The extensive internship program provides employees with mentoring and guidance from senior management. Our interns are 30 percent more likely to go on to work at the agency. Go anywhere in the world, and next to the New York Yankees’ logo, it’s the NASA logo that is the most recognized and appreciated. It’s a way for the U.S. government to project soft power and to work not only with our natural allies like the European Space Agency, but our one-time mortal enemy, Russia.

The space race between the Soviet Union and China in the early days of modern technology was a great thing. Could you envision a similar race with China in the 2020s—and could space eventually be a venue for Sino-American detente as it was with the U.S. and Russia?

Both yes to the first and possibly the second question. The best thing about competition is that it’s healthy. This brings out our greatest efficiency and makes the best use of all the talents we have. As to a detente with China, that’s just a qualified yes because there is nothing thus far to indicate that China is in any way willing to be less secretive about their space program and the military aspects of their space program.

That secretiveness extends to China’s space budget. Beijing says its space program receives $8 billion per year. However, most people think that is a very low figure. Their space program is integrated in their military and the budget for their military isn’t disclosed. Can China win the race to reach the moon if it has enough money, and the will to do so?

It doesn’t matter if it is something I can say or Joe Biden has any thoughts.

Yet, the timeline for American astronauts on the moon has slipped to 2024 from 2025. Part of the problem is that NASA’s funding allows for only one launch per year of the SLS moon rocket. From 1968 to 1972, nine crewed missions were launched by NASA during the Apollo era.

For a sustained landing program we’ve got to have more money. That’s in the 2023 budget. However, patience is essential. The 1986 shuttle flight was scrubbed on four occasions at the launch pad. However, the fifth attempt saw a successful six-day mission. Just days after landing, we were again greeted by the sky. ChallengerLaunched and then exploded. In other words, I am adamant that you take your time to do the right thing.

The commercial sector is playing an increasing role in space—launching astronauts to low-Earth orbit, tourists to suborbital space and even looking at crewed missions to the moon and Mars. Do you think there will ever be a space agency that is not run by government agencies?

I’m going to answer your question with an example. Take a look at the incredible commercial activity in the airline industry worldwide, which began with government investments into the design, testing and construction of airplanes. To ensure that any new technology is successful, it’s essential for the government to sow the seed corn. Take a look at the pharmaceutical sector. How about the miracle of COVID vaccinations? That didn’t just happen, right? That was a great investment by the government.

This idea also applies to the International Space Station. It has been operating continuously for over 20 years, and it is very expensive to maintain. What is the likelihood of it remaining in operation? And what will happen to the U.S. space station business once that time has passed?

It’s the intent of Congress, in coordination with NASA, to keep the space station running until 2030. Also, we encourage industry to participate in the commercial space station, to bring down the cost of manufacturing, research and production. It is already happening. NASA will soon want to turn it over to the business sector to allow NASA to focus on the sky.

The heavens are our gateway to politics. One of the things that’s kept us from returning to the moon for the last 50 years is a lack of continuity, with every new presidential administration tossing out the past one’s plans for NASA and implementing its own.

A multi-administration effort is necessary for any space program to become a success. It’s like building an aircraft carrier; that takes about 12 years and spans many administrations. It is the same for the space program.

In these polarized times, is that possible? It’s been 30 years since you were elected to Congress. What do you most miss about Congress?

A lack of ability to work together and get the job done due to extreme partisanship or ideological rigidity. That’s not the way it was when I was a young congressman. And that’s not the way it was when I came into the Senate—even after that disputed [2000]Election with 537 Votes [in Florida], Republicans and Democrats got along, and they could still today because they’re all wonderful people. However, they listen to extreme views and small cliques which are destroying the necessary middle ground.


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