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NASA’s New Chief on SpaceX’s Mars Rocket, UFOs and Going Back to the Moon

NASA’s New Chief on SpaceX’s Mars Rocket, UFOs and Going Back to the Moon

Former Florida Senator and veteran of spaceflight, Bill Nelson, has taken the helm at NASA. The space agency has the ball rolling on plans to return humans to the moon for the first time in a half century (including the first woman and the first person of color), private companies like SpaceX are working more actively than ever on otherworldly rocket technologies, and there’s the typical smattering of evergreen space controversies. Are UFOs evidence of alien life? Will NASA’s massive Space Launch System rocket ever fly? Can NASA really get people back to the moon in 2024, as the Trump administration had promised? And how much will this moon program cost taxpayers, anyway?

CNN Business’ Rachel Crane sat down with Nelson last week to touch on all those topics and more. Below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

CNN Business: It seems unrealistic, that the 2024 deadline for Artemis, NASA’s moon landing program, is going to be met. How optimistic are you?

I’m soberly realistic. The goal is 2024, but space is hard. And we know when you are pushing the edge of the envelope, often there are delays. There’s a number one factor and that’s safety, and it’s involving humans. There might be a delay, but the goal is late 2024.

Oversight officials recently put the cost of Artemis at $86 billion through 2025. Is that a fair estimate? How much do you think the all-in cost of Artemis will be?

I think we are going to try to stick to the existing amount that is allocated. Now, remember when it comes to the actual landing of Artemis, that is a fixed-price contract — the one that was awarded to SpaceX. They figure that that is going to cost them $6 billion, and they bid roughly $3 billion. So they are betting $3 billion on their own success. And that’s a substantial investment. If it goes over budget, it would be SpaceX that would absorb that cost.

We know that NASA intends to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. What can you tell us about that selection process? When are we going to learn who these lucky people are?

Remember it’s another three years away. The selection of astronauts is going very carefully, but remember it’s not just going to be one landing. There are going to be a number of landings over a 10-year period. And so there’s gonna be lots of opportunities.

Interestingly, the first astronauts class where there was considerable diversity of women as well as minorities was the class of 1978. It was the first space shuttle astronaut class, and we have seen the astronaut corps be very diverse ever since.

As for the selection announcement, it won’t be that soon, but it will happen. So stay tuned.

NASA was awarded just a quarter of what it requested for a critical part of Artemis’ architecture, the Human Landing System (HLS). Several companies were competing for that contract, but NASA — citing budget constraints — solely awarded the contract to SpaceX. Now, some of the other companies, like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, are contesting that outcome. Do you think they’re right in contesting it?

That’s not for me to say. We are in the blackout period that we do not comment on it until the General Accounting Office makes their decision. We expect that around the first of August, and then we’ll know.

Were you surprised they contested the outcome?

No, usually, these big contracts like this are contested. Whether it’s military launch contracts or NASA contracts.

But if the GAO rules in favor of those who are protesting the contract, It would potentially really delay the Artemis lunar landing because you would start the contracting process over.

But nevertheless, to your point about money: NASA will need more money to have contract competition continue over the next decade, with many landings on the moon. There is an opportunity for the Congress to do that. And a good opportunity is the jobs bill that Congress is considering right now.

NASA would certainly be eligible to be put into jobs. And I’ve actually discussed that with members of the House and the Senate. The question is can they pass it? Stay tuned.

The fact that it’s the richest men in the world that we’re talking about here — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos — and they’re receiving billions of dollars in public funding, that’s a tough pill during such difficult economic times. So how do you reconcile that, and how do you convince the public that these are essential programs?

We reconcile it by recognizing what these companies are contributing to — not only our space program — but to the development of technology. Along comes SpaceX, and they say we can bring astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. And indeed, they are now transporting cargo and crew, and it is costing NASA a fraction of what it would have been costing.

These billionaires, that you call them, are putting their wealth into the research and development of the space program. We’re going to see the cost come down.

Another example, SpaceX is launching Department of Defense satellites to protect us. Cost has come way down because of competition in the marketplace.

NASA’s own rocket, Space Launch System (SLS), has cost the government billions and billions and is years behind schedule, and it has yet to take flight. SpaceX is working on Starship and making rapid progress. These rockets can theoretically do the same tasks. Do you think that Starship could make SLS obsolete?

Maybe Starship will be ready to fly, but they have not flown the first stage of the rocket.

But the Space Launch System is, as we speak, being stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, and at the end of this year, it is going to fly.

So when is Starship going to fly? I hope they fly soon. But we’ve got to have a way to get our astronauts up to the moon, and we’re going to do the first unmanned test launch of Space Launch System at the end of the year.

Do you see a future in which Starship surpasses SLS?

I hope we see a competition. And if Starship is cheaper and better than SLS, then that’s something always to consider for the foreseeable future.

Americans have long been fascinated by UFOs, and the public has seen the videos that our Navy pilots have taken, and they’ve heard their accounts. Do you think that we have been contacted by extraterrestrials?

Well, I have talked to those Navy pilots, and they are sure that they saw something. And of course we’ve seen their video from their jets.

What is it, we don’t know.

So, now that I’m here at NASA I’ve turned to our scientists, and I’ve said, ‘Would you, look at it from scientific standpoint. See if you can determine what it is so we can have a better idea.

We don’t know if it’s extraterrestrial. We don’t know if it’s an enemy. We don’t know if it’s an optical phenomenon. We don’t think it’s an optical phenomenon because of the characteristics that those Navy jet pilots described.

The Pentagon will soon release its report on UFOs. What has NASA been briefed about in terms of this report? Have you been involved in any way? And do you think that NASA should be more involved?

I was actually briefed on this a couple of years ago in my capacity on the Senate Armed Services Committee. NASA, appropriately, is going to look at it through the lens of its scientists. We are involved in this research, and I’ve started. I’ve been here a month, and I’ve started.

We are not directly working with the Pentagon, but I can guarantee you, if we find something, the Pentagon will know.

Despite political tensions that exist here on Earth, US and Russia relations in space have a decade’s long history. What are some of the biggest challenges to maintaining space as neutral territory?

I don’t want that cooperation to stop. There is talk coming out of Russia and China that they’re going to do a deal together to go to the moon. I don’t want to see our cooperation with Russia cease.

I can tell you, whatever the politics is, where we have a very strained relationship with Russia right now at the Putin level — I can tell you the workers, the space workers, they want to continue with the Americans.

There’s long been these rumors, though, that Russia intends to pull out of the International Space Station. You have been very vocal that you want to extend the life span of the ISS to 2030. What would it mean for us if Russia pulls out?

It would not be good if Russia starts just depending on China. Then I expect we would have a whole new race to the moon with China and Russia against the US.

But I anticipate — after all the years since 1975 of cooperation — that your politics can be butting heads on Earth while you are cooperating between your two nations in space.

This China-Russia space partnership, what kind of threat would that pose to America’s dominance as a leader in space exploration?

I think it’d be a threat to Russia. Because China, eventually, as they are want to do, start dominating the Russian space station and the Russian space program.

Space has been a domain where enemies on Earth can get together and cooperate. We don’t want to lose that.

We want to do that with China, too, but China has been very secretive. For example, just recently, the core of their rocket tumbled back from orbit uncontrolled. First of all, they should have saved enough fuel to have a controlled reentry and ensure populated areas would not be threatened. And second thing is that, if it’s going to be coming in uncontrolled — they should be transparent and tell the people of the world to be protected.

Do you think another space race is in our future?

I hope not. But it is clear that China is developing very sophisticated space capabilities. China is only the second nation that has successfully landed a rover on Mars. Now, they’re looking to go to the moon not only with humans, but they are sending three landers to the moon’s South Pole. That’s where abundant water is.

We’re actually going to get there first. But we have to be concerned. You have to watch out so somebody doesn’t get to the moon and suddenly say: This is my territory, you stay out. That’s why I want to see if we have the ability to cooperate.

We also want to cooperate on managing space debris, because that junk is lethal. If it hits something like our space station or an astronaut during a spacewalk, it would puncture the spacesuit. That would be instant death.

How would you characterize the threat of all of this space debris?

It’s dangerous, and shameful for anybody — including the US — that has allowed space debris to be up there.

This came to the public’s attention in 2007 when the Chinese government tested anti-satellite technology. They purposely hit one of their satellites and blew it to smithereens. There were thousands of pieces of space debris generated about 150 to 350 miles up, near where most space missions travel, and where the human activities such as our International Space Station are. So — easy answer to your question — it is very dangerous, and we’ve got to get nations to stop putting up the debris.

There are several upcoming tourists missions to the International Space Station in addition to a slew of films and reality shows that are set to start production in the near future. What do you think of all of those film projects? Should taxpayer dollars really go towards providing a set location for blockbusters?

As we go into space, we want to encourage entrepreneurs to do new things and to utilize the extraordinary Zero-G environment of space to do all kinds of science, as well as entertainment. Should they pay the freight? The answer to that is yes.

For a private astronaut to go on to the International Space Station — even though they’re on a private rocket and paying for that — they should pay fair market value for use of the International Space Station. And I think that’s the way they will approach it in the future.