Bill Nelson pledges action on Artemis, Mars and China in 1st hearing as NASA chief

New NASA administrator and long-time politician Bill Nelson addressed concerns about China and NASA's Artemis moon program at his first Congressional hearing as agency head Wednesday (May 19).

Most of the conversation between Nelson and the subcommittee regarding NASA's $24.7 billion "skinny budget" request was directed at NASA's troubled Artemis human landing systems contract, and worries about competition from China.

Nelson told lawmakers that China plans to send three large landers to the moon's south pole in upcoming years, while NASA currently has only a small lander headed to the same region in the next two years. The moon's south pole is of particular interest to scientists because frozen water there could be used to make rocket fuel and oxygen for future astronaut missions.

The NASA chief also cited reports that the China National Space Administration aims to launch astronauts on a flyby mission to the moon, and then land sometime in the 2020s. "In other words, they're going to be landing humans on the moon. That should tell us something about our need to get off our duff and get our human landing system going vigorously," he said.

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson holds up a photo of China's Zhurong Mars rover during a House hearing on May 19, 2021. (Image credit: NASA TV)

Nelson twice showed a printed-out picture of China's newly landed Zhurong Mars rover to the camera during the virtual hearing and said the Chinese program is "adding a new element about whether we want to be serious" about going back to the moon. 

The progress of Artemis also attracted concern from members of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Ranking member Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.) criticized NASA for sole-sourcing the Artemis human landing systems (HLS) contract to SpaceX before Nelson was sworn in; the award to SpaceX on April 26 generated protests from fellow competitors Blue Origin and Dynetics.

"Within the bounds of law, I will insist on that future competition," Nelson said, asking the politicians to allocate money for the HLS award in an upcoming jobs bill. He acknowledged that the contract will start over if the protest to the U.S. Government Accountability Office is successful. But if the contract stands, he pledged for competition for future landings, as the SpaceX award was only for a single mission. Nelson further indicated that current HLS providers cannot receive money under their existing agreements until a ruling comes from the protest. 

When asked about the Artemis 1 launch date to send an uncrewed mission around the moon — which has been under time pressure due to Space Launch System testing hiccups earlier in the year — Nelson said it "could be" later in 2021, as planned. 

For the forthcoming upper stage of the rocket, Nelson asked for development funding from the jobs bill for a planned first flight on the Artemis 4 mission. He also pledged to try to recruit more countries to work with NASA under the Artemis Accords that have had trouble attracting more signatures.

Nelson defended NASA's employee diversity, saying he only agreed to take the top job if the Biden administration named one of his three nominations for a female chief to a senior role at NASA. Former astronaut Pam Melroy was subsequently nominated as deputy administrator; Nelson called her "the real deal." Next came Biden's nomination for chief financial officer, Margaret Vo Schaus, a Vietnamese-American whose parents came to the United States as refugees.

The Biden administration also pledged last month to land the first "person of color" on the moon, adding on to the previous Trump administration's promise to place the first female astronaut on the lunar surface.

The 2022 NASA budget request is a $1.5 billion increase from 2021. Perhaps the most notable budget line item was $6.9 billion for the Artemis moon-landing program, which the document said was $325 million more than Congress allocated the program for 2021. 

There were a few smaller discussions about items such as updating NASA's cybersecurity (which Nelson said will be included in the fiscal 2022 budget request), funding science, technology, engineering and math or STEM (which the Biden administration mentioned in the skinny budget), and various member requests having to do with jobs, aerospace technology development and small business.

For example, Matt Cartwright (D-Penn.) requested more support for small businesses in NASA contracts. Nelson pointed to the fiscal year 2020 budget that allocated $3 billion to them as subcontractors. That was on top of the typical $3 billion the agency allocates annually to small business, Nelson said.

Ben Cline (R-Va.) also asked about nuclear thermal propulsion development at NASA, which former administrator Jim Bridenstine once said could be a "game-changer" for sending humans to Mars since it would cut the travel time in half to only three or four months. Nelson acknowledged such propulsion could be helpful for Red Planet missions but asked Cline to put the request in the jobs bill.

Ranking member Aderholt further suggested that NASA and Space Force coordinate spending on commercial launch systems, which Nelson said he would consider. Nelson also said, perhaps as a joke, that he would love to ride along with a pilot on NASA's quiet supersonic X-59 aircraft that is aiming to slice travel times on Earth for cross-ocean travel. 

Other human spaceflight items of note in the budget beyond Artemis included "the development of capabilities for sustainable, long-duration human exploration beyond Earth, and eventually to Mars" and a note on the International Space Station allocating more than $3 billion to "support space station operations, cargo and crew transportation, and research that benefits the exploration of space and life on Earth."

Biden also included a pledge of $2.3 billion for the agency's Earth science programs, after numerous attempts at reductions on climate change initiatives from the Trump administration. 

The request also included discretionary funds for NASA's Mars sample return mission as a follow up to the Perseverance rover, the planned Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's icy moon, the Dragonfly quadcopter mission to Saturn's moon Titan and the new flagship Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope that was frequently targeted for cuts under the Trump administration.

The subcommittee held the meeting virtually due to ongoing quarantine restrictions associated with the novel coronavirus pandemic, although several members made pitches for Nelson to visit their districts once restrictions ease.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: