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New NASA chief Bill Nelson brings a politician's eye to space agency

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed the agency on June 2, 2021.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed the agency on June 2, 2021. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA's new administrator, Bill Nelson, is a familiar face in the space community, but the agency he has led for nearly two months now has changed a great deal in recent years.

Nelson comes to the position after representing the Space Coast and Florida in Congress for decades, and he takes the reins at a busy time for NASA, which is pushing double quick toward crewed missions to the moon while also feeling out its place in an arena ever more crowded by commercial players. Space.com sat down with Nelson to understand where his priorities for the agency lie and what he's thinking about as he settles into the job.

"It's a wonderful privilege to have the responsibility of leading this can-do agency," Nelson told Space.com. "If you really want to know the truth, I'm like a kid in a candy store," he said, although he also compared the experience to "drinking from a firehose."

Related: NASA likely to stay the course to the moon under Bill Nelson, if confirmed

Nelson had close ties to NASA long before taking the agency's reins. Throughout his decades in Congress, he represented NASA's Kennedy Space Center geographically and finagled seats on committees related to the agency. During his first speech as administrator to the entire agency, he recounted how in 1917, his grandmother homesteaded on land that now holds part of the space shuttle runway. He even talked the agency into taking him to space as a payload specialist aboard the shuttle Columbia in 1985.

Now, at 78, he's in the pilot's seat. As a career politician, Nelson brings a lifetime of political thinking to the job of leading NASA, an agency regularly touted for its ability to transcend the messy realities of politics.

But NASA isn't quite the same agency it was in 2018, when Nelson lost his Senate re-election bid and left his seat as the ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, the same group that had first say on his nomination by President Joe Biden.

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)

A race to the moon 

The biggest change in the agency's agenda is an accelerated timeline to again land astronauts on the moon. Previously, such missions targeted 2028; in 2019, then-Vice President Mike Pence directed the agency to accelerate that timeline, to 2024, as part of a broader moon exploration campaign soon named the Artemis program. NASA promised that the 2024 surface mission would include the first woman on the moon.

Nelson's recent comments suggest he thinks that timeline is possible, although certainly not easy. But for him, a moon landing in the not-too-distant future is not just about taking a directive and executing it. For Nelson, the Artemis program is the best way to preserve the agency — and the nation — from losing big on an international stage.

Most of all, Nelson is worried about China, and he doesn't mind framing that worry as cause for fear. His first appearance as administrator before Congress came just after China published the first photos taken by Zhurong, its first-ever Mars rover, which touched down on May 14. Twice during the hearing, Nelson held a print-out of the image up to the camera while explaining the threats he sees from the nation. He's sounded the same notes on other occasions as well, including in our interview.

"I think it's obvious when China landed a rover, [became] the second nation to land a rover successfully on Mars, that they have a very aggressive space program," Nelson said. "I think we are going to see a very aggressive competitor." (The Zhurong landing came more than two decades after the U.S. landed its Sojourner rover in 1997 and 45 years after NASA successfully delivered its first two Mars landers, the twin Viking spacecraft, to the Red Planet.)

When asked why he frames the situation as a competition, rather than two space programs independently addressing their own priorities, Nelson returned to the moon, citing China's plans for three missions to the lunar south pole and publicly stated ambitions to some day land astronauts there as well.

"Even though we landed on the moon several times 55 years ago, I doubt the American people would want the U.S. going back to the moon and landing after the Chinese, so that's where I see some of the aggressive competition," he said. "I also see some of that competition in them planning three missions to the south pole of the moon, where we know there's a good deal of water there."

Where there is water ice, would-be explorers hope to turn it into, in particular, rocket fuel, since toting fuel from Earth for launches from the moon is an expensive proposition. How accessible that water ice is and how much processing it needs before it can fill up a spacecraft tank remains to be seen, but the unknowns haven't stopped resource hounds from prioritizing the region.

Vice President Kamala Harris swears in Bill Nelson as NASA administrator on May 3, 2021. Looking on are Pamela Melroy, whom the Senate has since confirmed as deputy administrator; former administrators Jim Bridenstine (participating virtually) and Charles Bolden; and Nelson's children and wife.  (Image credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

China's lunar program, named after the moon goddess Chang'e, is indeed impressive: the nation's robots have survived countless frigid lunar nights, and in 2019, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon, where communication with Earth requires a relay satellite in lunar orbit. And the nation does want to turn its exploration to the south pole of the moon. The next three Chang'e missions would all target the region, with two launching around 2023 and 2024 and one launching later in the decade.

But it's not like China is the only nation interested in the lunar south pole, where the ice is a compelling science target as well as a tantalizing resource.

India made the first robotic landing attempt in the region in September 2019 as part of its Chandrayaan-2 mission, although the Vikram lander crashed instead of landing softly. The nation is partnering with Japan on another landing mission targeting the region that could launch around 2023. The European Space Agency (ESA) and Russia are collaborating on two robotic missions to the region, including one targeting a launch later this year.

And, of course, all of NASA's crewed Artemis missions and many of the robotic spacecraft affiliated with the program would focus on the south pole. And while few other nations are pursuing the technology needed to safely land humans on the moon, ESA and Japan are both likely vying for seats on Artemis missions for their own astronauts through contributing to the program.

Related: From Yuri Gagarin's launch to today, human spaceflight has always been political

A changing partnership 

Nelson also sees a threat in the ties that China is developing with Russia, whose partnership with the United States has shaped spaceflight for decades. In particular, it would seem that China and Russia are looking to collaborate on human spaceflight.

Russia is discussing ways to send its cosmonauts to China's new space station, the core module of which launched in April and is currently hosting its first "taikonauts." And the pair have created a blueprint for leading an internationally collaborative research station on the moon at a location yet to be determined, with the goal of becoming operational in the mid-2030s, although that partnership has specified it won't attempt crewed missions within the next decade.

Even without China's Russian forays, the U.S.-Russia collaboration in space, which has always been politically complex, will likely need some tending during Nelson's administration. The modern partnership is anchored in orbit by the International Space Station, a project that the United States recruited Russia to join late. The Soviet Union had finally fallen, and the U.S. saw the space station partnership as a tactic to discourage formerly Soviet scientists from taking nuclear secrets to enemies of the U.S. (The ISS has been continuously occupied by rotating astronaut crews since November 2000.)

But today, the U.S.-Russia relationship can be tense. A decade of NASA reliance on Russian Soyuz capsules to reach the space station, following the space shuttles' 2011 retirement, and pursuit of commercial launches has strained the partnership. Since Nelson assumed leadership at NASA, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Russian federal space agency Roscosmos, has pushed back against U.S. sanctions on Russian companies, threatening to leave the International Space Station program if the sanctions are left in place.

Nelson told Space.com that he's had three conversations with Rogozin, including a joint appearance on a June 15 panel at the Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) held in St. Petersburg, Russia, which included high-ranking officials from eight different space agencies. "It has been a very cordial conversation," Nelson said. "I want the Russians to stay as our partners. They're a very important partner on the space station."

Nelson said that he didn't see any key roadblocks in the relationship that needed to be addressed and noted that when Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to American press recently, "he spoke very similarly to what I just said."

And Russia, like China, is glaringly absent from the list of signatories to the Artemis Accords, a set of principles initiated by Bridenstine and meant to govern exploration activities beyond low Earth orbit, tackling issues like resource use and managing space debris. Three countries have signed on since Biden and Nelson have taken office, bringing the total to a dozen.

Needless to say, the lifelong politician has an appreciation for the role his new agency can play on the international stage. "As America projects her power all over the globe, NASA is a huge source of soft power because generally, everybody loves NASA," Nelson said.

All eyes on Artemis 

Given these international complexities, for Nelson, continuing the push to the moon is the top priority, and the faster the better.

Despite countless other moon initiatives coming to nought and continuing concerns about schedules, Nelson said his agency is sticking to President Donald Trump's administration's goal of landing humans back on the moon by 2024, although he acknowledged that the timeline might slip.

"2024 is the goal, but space is hard," Nelson said. "To be brutally realistic, the history of the development of all space programs has been one where when you are doing cutting-edge technology, sometimes it takes more time."

Still, he says he's confident that the Artemis program will mark astronauts' long-awaited return to the moon. (The final Apollo moon mission, Apollo 17, left the lunar surface in December 1972.) He said that confidence stems not from the attraction of the moon itself, but from the American desire to visit Mars next. "We're going back to the moon in preparation to go to Mars," he said. "We're going back to the moon to learn everything we don't know, in preparation to take humans to Mars."

(The Artemis program was originally presented only as lunar missions; later, NASA officials began framing it as "going back to the moon and onto Mars," possibly in response to comments from Trump declaring the moon an insufficiently exciting goal.)

But Nelson is walking into a tight spot to reach the moon in just three and a half years. The Artemis timeline has always been ambitious, and the COVID-19 pandemic caused serious delays, particularly to manufacturing.

Artemis relies on NASA's much-delayed Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-launch vehicle, which Nelson himself championed in the Senate. When President Barack Obama's administration argued for relying more on commercial partnerships, Nelson and his colleagues in the Senate stipulated that NASA should still build a heavy launch vehicle. More than 10 years and $9 billion later, that vehicle still hasn't flown.

Fittingly, Nelson looks forward to the first SLS flight later this year, on the uncrewed Artemis 1 test mission around the moon. "The SLS is going to be ready," Nelson said. "We are flying the SLS at the end of the year."

NASA has said it is still targeting November for Artemis 1; however, an April report from NASA's Office of Inspector General determined that "the agency faces significant challenges that we believe will make its current plan to launch Artemis 1 in 2021 and ultimately land astronauts on the moon by the end of 2024 highly unlikely."

Whenever Artemis 1 does finally blast off, expect to see Nelson on the scene. When asked if he would attend the launch in person, he asked, "Is the pope Catholic?"

A new model of spaceflight 

That enthusiasm isn't surprising; Nelson is a firm advocate of human spaceflight.

But even as the agency pushes to land astronauts on the moon, it is also navigating an increasingly complicated human spaceflight situation closer to Earth. So far, NASA has held the monopoly on crewed spaceflights launched from the United States — either operating these missions directly or, in the case of a year's worth of SpaceX flights to the space station, contracting for a flight filled with government astronauts.

NASA will lose that monopoly this year as private spaceflight milestones fall rapidly. Blue Origin is targeting its first crewed suborbital flight, boasting passengers including founder Jeff Bezos, in July. SpaceX plans to launch its first non-NASA mission on a Crew Dragon spacecraft in September. Early in 2022, the International Space Station itself will greet its first fully private crew for a weeklong stay in orbit, also launched by SpaceX.

And that's a form of spaceflight that may feel strangely familiar to Nelson, who brings a unique qualification to his role as NASA administrator. Although he was never a professional NASA astronaut like his deputy, Pamela Melroy, he spent a little over six days in orbit on the space shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist in 1985.

At the time, he was both the representative for the district including Kennedy Space Center and the chair of the House Committee on Science and Technology's Subcommittee on Space Science and Applications. With the flight, he became the second sitting congressperson to reach orbit through NASA's initiative to permit the chairs of its appropriations and authorizations committees to fly in space "in connection with their NASA oversight duties," according to a NASA statement reported by the New York Times at the time.

At the time, the program was controversial. Crewmates allegedly nicknamed Nelson "Ballast" because science investigators didn't want their research in his less-experienced hands. And according to the Orlando Sentinel at the time, his training lasted about two months and would have cost the agency on the order of $100,000.

But that template for spaceflight isn't so different from the flights that will begin later this year as journeys to orbit become accessible to non-NASA employees, this time based on their wealth, luck or connections rather than position within Congress.

And in Nelson's eyes, more humans going to space is both good and, perhaps, inevitable. "I think it's exciting for the people on planet Earth that other people are going to have a chance to have this experience," he said. "I see this as a natural evolution, of more and more of us Earthlings going into space."

When asked what the value of more people experiencing space for themselves is, he said, "to understand the incredible creation upon which we live."

(NASA administrators can seem like flight risks, and Nelson certainly does. "Don't be surprised if you see me as a stowaway on something!" he said of the rise of private spaceflight missions, although he lamented that in such close quarters he'd probably be found out before liftoff.)

For many of these private flights, Nelson won't have much to do. "If it's a straight-up private mission, such as SpaceX's mission, then that's much more within their bailiwick," Nelson said, referring to the Inspiration4 mission scheduled to launch in mid-September to orbit Earth independently, without a space station meetup. "But of course, SpaceX couldn't have gotten to the degree of safety that they've gotten, had it not been for NASA's participation."

For missions like Axiom Space's January 2022 flight, when commercial passengers will visit the space station, Nelson sees a more active role for NASA to play in ensuring the safety of all involved, although he complimented Axiom's approach of hiring a retired NASA astronaut to lead each flight and guide interactions between the visiting crew and the long-term astronauts.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addressed the agency on June 2, 2021.  (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Science, on Earth and beyond 

Although human spaceflight is clearly where Nelson's enthusiasm lies, he will also of course be overseeing major science plans the agency has underway.

Perhaps the starkest change in course under Nelson and the Biden administration that selected him comes in the Earth science portfolio, which Trump repeatedly tried to trim. Biden has made climate change a cornerstone of his administration's priorities, and Nelson says that NASA has a leading role to play there. "You can'​t mitigate climate change unless you measure it," Nelson said during his April 21 confirmation hearing.

Nelson has already unveiled the first Earth science initiative of his administration, a five-mission program called the Earth Systems Observatory that draws on a 2018 outline for how Earth science should progress over the next decade. The first mission in the program, a satellite to study how Earth's surface changes during earthquakes, landslides and other hazards that has been in the works for nearly a decade, will launch in January 2023.

And Nelson has already gotten to make the first mission selection announcement of his term. On June 2, he announced that the agency would fly two new spacecraft to Venus as part of its midsize Discovery mission planetary science program. Scheduled to launch between 2028 and 2030, the new missions, DAVINCI+ and VERITAS, will focus their attention on Venus' atmosphere and surface, respectively, as scientists attempt to unravel the mysteries of Earth's strange twin.

So, Nelson has overseen a lot of action — and he's been in office for less than two months. 

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Meghan Bartels

Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.