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Moonshots, private space stations and more: NASA chief Bill Nelson on the future of human spaceflight

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is confident the agency's human spaceflight future is bright, despite the inherent difficulty of the endeavor and some challenging international issues. 

"NASA is an agency of overcomers," Nelson told Space.com at the 36th annual Space Symposium, which took place here last month.

The space agency is on the precipice of returning humans to the moon with its Artemis program while continuing to navigate tricky international relationships and looking to the future of low Earth orbit, including the ultimate retirement of the International Space Station. And there is no shortage of obstacles. 

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addresses the crowd Aug. 24, 2021 at the 36th annual Space Symposium.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addresses the crowd on Aug. 24, 2021, at the 36th annual Space Symposium.   (Image credit: Space Foundation)

It's hard getting to the moon

With Artemis, NASA aims to return astronauts — including the first woman and first person of color — to the lunar surface and, over the longer term, establish a sustainable human presence on and around the moon. But, even just within the last year, the agency has faced a multitude of hurdles that put its original goal of a crewed moon landing by 2024 in jeopardy. 

The 2024 goal is ambitious even without obstacles. But, like the rest of the world, NASA has also had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made its work on Artemis and other programs more difficult.

In addition, NASA's inspector general recently found that delays and challenges with developing the agency's new, next-generation spacesuits, which the Artemis astronauts will wear, might make a 2024 moon landing "not feasible." The spacesuit concerns, which were caused, in-part, by COVID-19 supply chain problems and technical challenges, remain an issue. 

But "NASA is a bunch of people that are overcomers, they're can-do people," Nelson told Space.com. "And no matter what the obstacle, we will get it done ... and there have been obstacles." Nelson added that NASA "was voted the best handling at COVID of any U.S. government department. So we'll get it done."

"Space is hard," Nelson said. And, he added about the spacesuits, "they've been developed over the course of the last 10 years. It's a totally different kind of suit … we're developing the spacesuit of the future. And they've run into delays in the course of that, but space is hard. And you often run into these delays."

When asked whether NASA can make its 2024 moon-landing goal, Nelson said, "Well, is it gonna be in 2024? No. It's gonna be '23." That's a reference to the Artemis 2 mission, which aims to send humans to lunar orbit in 2023. (The moon-landing mission is Artemis 3.) 

Related: The evolution of the spacesuit in pictures

Commercialization of space

Space, and specifically low Earth orbit (LEO), are becoming increasingly "commercialized," in that more and more private companies are getting involved in launch technology, satellites, science and more in this nearby area of space. And, while companies in LEO are developing and launching new technologies, that commercialization is also extending to the space station.

"We already have commercial involvement in the space station," Nelson said. 

While the International Space Station could retire as soon as 2024, Nelson has previously said that he thinks and hopes that the space station's tenure will extend to 2030. And, in speaking with Space.com, he emphasized that hope and relayed that such an extension could help transition LEO into a more commercial zone where private space stations could one day operate.

The growing commercial involvement, Nelson said, is "another reason to extend it [the space station's tenure], to continue that commercial participation, and to get the commercial industry to where it becomes attractive to them to set up their own space station."

"I believe, since I've been here for a few months, that the White House, later on, in a short period of time, will be coming out and issuing a statement on this. I expect it to be supportive of 2030, because that gives you another nine years, eight and a half years, in order to get the commercial companies ready to take over low Earth orbit with a commercial station or stations and other activities where they are actually doing profitable enterprises," Nelson said. 

In looking to a future where the International Space Station has retired and LEO is heavily commercialized, Nelson thinks that this shift will allow NASA to "concentrate on going to Mars, and operations around the moon." 

An ever-changing international playing field

As the agency looks to the moon and Mars and the future of its role in space and human spaceflight, it also continues to grapple with international relations. 

Recently, Russia's Nauka science module docked with the space station and experienced a malfunction that caused the station to spin. While quickly resolved with the help of ground teams, it was highly unusual and caused some concern. However, Nelson emphasized that the relationship between Russia's space agency, known as Roscosmos, and NASA is as strong as ever. 

"The Russian experience, the old Soviet experience, is to show you that two military enemies can become friends in civil space. That has been demonstrated amply, since 1975," he said, referring to that year's landmark Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.

"That's what I would hope with China," Nelson added. While NASA and Roscosmos continue to figure out how to collaborate in space, relations between China and NASA remain challenging

When asked about whether he hopes NASA and China might one day form a partnership, Nelson replied, "It takes two to tango. And so China has to be willing. I think we are willing." 

There are restrictions about how NASA and China can work together, in that NASA has to "certify that it [cooperation] does not in any way harm national security," Nelson said. But with transparent communication, it would be possible to work within those parameters, he added.

"I hope we can cooperate," Nelson said. "Otherwise, it's a space race."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.