NASA Chief Bill Nelson talks about rockets, lunar plans and partnerships

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As a politician, space was a matter for Bill Nelson. He started as a state legislator near the Florida Space Coast, rose to Congress in 1978, and then became the first sitting member of parliament to actually go into space in 1986, flying as a payload expert on the Space Shuttle in Columbia. He used three terms in the Senate to formulate NASA’s budget and helped steer NASA’s plans to return to the Moon on the political side before he lost the re-election offer in 2018.

Now he is on the other side and heads the agency he oversaw for years.

Nelson was sworn in on May 3 as NASA’s 14th administrative officer on May 3, and Nelson is in control of the space agency at a key moment, and much is already on his plate. His mission is to put astronauts back on the Moon, sustain a growing set of international partners, shape the fate of the 20-year-old International Space Station, and encourage NASA’s Earth Sciences wings to play a greater role in studying climate change.

Like his predecessor, NASA Director Jim Bridenstine, who became Congressman, Nelson wants to leverage his Senate experience to bring people back to the Moon by 2024, by the deadline set by the Trump administration. President Biden’s Transitional Organization was ridiculed in the 2024 target as unrealistic, but Nelson adopts it with a measured approach, holding on to the ditch while recognizing the moon’s shot is not an easy task.

He already has some challenges. Last year, Congress gave NASA only a quarter of what it asked to fund its first trip to the Moon since 1972. The agency, due to its tight budget, planned a plan to select two companies and award-winning Elon Muskin SpaceX a lone $ 3 billion contract to customize the budding Starship rocket for the first two test flights on the lunar surface, including the first astronaut landed in 2024. It gave birth a wave of resistance from two losing attempts who were also in the race, as well as in the Senate of Nelson’s Old Friends. They are asking NASA to reopen the race.

On Friday, May 14th Limit practically sat with Nelson to discuss his new role as NASA administrator.

This interview has been slightly modified for clarity.

How do you like your new gig at NASA?

I drink from the hearth.

Ha, what is it like?

It’s like trying to take a sip of water when an avalanche of water comes towards you. [Laughs] I have a ball, it’s true. Of course, this is a topic that I have had some experience with and am excited about. It is only a great privilege for me to be appointed and confirmed for this job. So we have a lot going on this year, and you can see these things evolving.

It seems that your first big test is this dilemma of the human landing system with which we see evolving objections to the offer and Amendment by Senator Maria Cantwell aimed at reopening the competition won by SpaceX. Have you taken advantage of your Senate experience and talked about this to your Senate friends?

So. I have had many discussions with senators, members of Congress, and especially their staff, as well as White House staff. This is about the budget, and I have said that we need strong competition going forward in the human landing system. And, of course, everything has been frozen until the end of the first of August with the protest of the SpaceX award. We need competition depending on how it goes in both directions. Maria Cantwell, in my confirmation hearing, talked about it. And of course I assured him that the competition is good and you will get better efficiency and better performance from the competition.

But Congress must do its part. And it is to prepare, plan and give money so that we can compete vigorously and get multiple prize winners. In last year’s budget, NASA had asked for $ 3.4 billion for this competition, and Congress came up with $ 850 million. You just can’t compete with this kind of funding.

With protest lawsuits pending and without significant funding, it is unclear whether NASA can simply add another company to coexist with SpaceX. But should this 2024 goal in mind be a quick way to open an HLS competition to add a new business alongside SpaceX? Or should these other companies be expected to take advantage of future competitions?

Well, if the SpaceX award isn’t revoked, and you continue as a result of the state accountability agency saying that SpaceX is the winner, you just have to look at all of these extension agreements. The SpaceX award is only for a demonstration flight that lands people and returns them safely to the ground. Then you get access agreements – and there will be a lot of them – and that’s what competition is going to be about.

If the tender is successful, you will have to start the original competition again, and Congress will hopefully provide the resources for intense competition.

According to the SpaceX award, they can land on the Moon in 2024. Of course, we know that space is difficult, that due to technological advances and the unique environment of space and so on, history often tells us delays. But the year 2024 is the schedule presented in the award, and that’s what we’re planning – while recognizing the reality of sobriety that space is tough.

Then NASA administrator candidate Bill Nelson bumps his elbows after interrogation with Senator Maria Cantwell, chairman of the Senate Trade Committee overseeing NASA, on April 21, 2020.
Photo: Joey Roulette / The Verge

Let’s talk about NASA Space launch system. How do you feel about the future of SLS? What role should SLS play in NASA’s lunar vision in the long run?

Remember the context that SLS was designed when we passed NASA’s bill 11 years ago, which set a dual course for NASA. The commercial course and then the second course was to get NASA out of Earth’s orbit and go exploring outside of LEO. At the time, it felt like we needed to get moving, and we saw the potential, under NASA’s advice, to take full advantage of the technologies developed for the spacecraft, improve them, and take advantage of them today. SLS.

The SLS, as we speak, is stacked in a vehicle assembly building [Kennedy Space Center]. So I think SLS is going to have a strong future, and it will take our astronauts near the Moon, the so-called cislunar orbit. So yes, there will be a lot of activity with SLS.

There are some people in the space community who criticize the SLS program as a kind of workplace program and that despite the rocket’s proven shuttle equipment, the cost and design of commercial rockets has evolved significantly since Congress embarked on that dual-course goal. Do you agree with that at all?

Remember that space is difficult. And SLS is getting ready to fly. Others in the race have not flown. So you have to build step by step. So put it in context when you evaluate it.

In the field of climate and earth sciences – the Biden administration has promised to increase the country’s lead in the fight against climate change. What new investments and programs are we going to see in the field of climate science and green aviation in NASA’s budget request?

As I said confirmation consultation, if you want to mitigate climate change, you have to measure it. And who does it? It is NASA that is building the spacecraft. Take Landsat 9, for example, and this is after Landsat has been cooperating for 50 years [United States Geological Survey]. NASA offers repetitive imaging methods, and it shows during that half-century what happens to human interaction with the environment.

I clearly saw it 36 ​​years ago with the naked eye from a spaceship window. I could see, for example, going over the southern tip of Africa and out over the Indian Ocean. And behold, there is an island nation of Madagascar, and they had felled all the trees of Madagascar. And when the rains came, there was no vegetation to keep the soil. The upper floor fell along the rivers, and you can clearly see it from space. All the mouths of the rivers had significantly colored the bright blue of the Indian Ocean.

I wanted to move on to international partnerships. As a senator, you sometimes took tough positions on Russia. You often called them in 2018 for their hacking of Florida’s electoral systems. You are now at NASA, where Russia is one of its biggest partners in space. Should you change your views a little bit about Russia, and what future do you see for the NASA partnership?

Russia has been our partner since the ice broke out in the midst of the Cold War in 1975 with Apollo-Soyuz. We have built an international space station with them. I believe that as long as we are involved in the space station, Russia will remain our partner.

You probably know that I want to extend the life of the station until 2023, and the idea would eventually be to let the private industry build the space station after that. And NASA could focus on ongoing space exploration. But I see continued close cooperation. Despite the statements you hear from time to time that suggest otherwise, I only think that at the end of the day, Russia will continue to be our partner. I think we need to look at Russia and China saying that they are going to work together when they land on the Moon, but there is a big difference in saying that doing so. So I want to continue the partnership with the Russians.

What do you think about the partnership with China? Through the Wolf Amendment, NASA has been largely banned from cooperating with China. Many former NASA officials have supported the idea of ​​working more with China NASA allies of the court, such as Russia. And Pam Melroy, the future deputy, last year was borrowed Politico saying that ousting China is a “failed strategy.” Do you agree with him, and should NASA deal with China?

Well, that’s the law. And until the law is changed, we are going to obey the law. There are obvious things where you can still work with China regardless of the law. For example, if China manages to land on Mars today, we can share things. [Editor’s Note: a few hours later, it landed successfully.] In the future ahead, there are things we need to share with China, such as avoiding them space debris. So there are many, many things you can really be in a relationship with.

Given the state of growing relations between Russia and China right now, should the law, the Wolf Amendment, be changed? Or Are you trying to change the Wolf review?

Give me a moment to be in the saddle, and then I’ll answer your question.

Thank you so much for the discussion, Bill.

It is my pleasure. Call us anytime!

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