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NASA chief Bill Nelson talks rockets, Moon plans, and partnerships

Nelson on his first few days on the job: ‘I’m drinking from a firehose’

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As a politician, space was Bill Nelson’s thing. He started out as a state lawmaker near Florida’s Space Coast, ascended to Congress in 1978, then became the House’s first sitting member to actually go to space in 1986, flying as a payload specialist aboard Space Shuttle Columbia. He’d spend three terms in the Senate shaping NASA’s budget and helping steer, from the policy side, NASA’s plans to return to the Moon, before losing a reelection bid in 2018.

Now, he’s on the other side, leading the agency he oversaw for years.

Sworn in as NASA’s 14th administrator on May 3rd, Nelson helms the space agency at a pivotal moment, with a lot already on his plate. He’s tasked with putting astronauts back on the Moon, sustaining a growing bloc of international partners, shaping the fate of the 20-year-old International Space Station, and boosting NASA’s Earth Sciences wing to play a larger role in studying climate change.

Like his predecessor, congressman-turned-NASA chief Jim Bridenstine, Nelson wants to leverage his Senate experience to return humans to the Moon by 2024, a deadline set by the Trump administration. President Biden’s transition team scoffed at the 2024 goal as unrealistic, but Nelson is embracing it in a measured approach, holding off on ditching it while acknowledging a moonshot is no easy task.

A feud over NASA’s Moon lander award presents the first test of Nelson’s Senate ties

He already faces some challenges. Last year, Congress gave NASA only a quarter of what it requested to fund its first ride to the Moon since 1972. The agency, hamstrung by a tight budget, ditched a plan to pick two companies and awarded Elon Musk’s SpaceX a lone $3 billion contract to tailor its budding Starship rocket for two initial test flights to the lunar surface, including the first astronaut landing in 2024. That spawned a wave of opposition from the two losing companies that were also in the running for the contract, as well as pushback from Nelson’s old buddies in the Senate. They’re calling on NASA to reopen the competition.

On Friday, May 14th, The Verge sat down with Nelson, virtually, to chat about his new duties as NASA administrator.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How are you enjoying your new gig at NASA? 

I’m drinking from a firehose. 

Ha, what’s that like? 

It’s like trying to take sips of water with an avalanche of water coming at you. [Laughs] I’m having a ball, is the true statement. Of course, this is a subject matter that I have had some experience in and I’m passionate about. It’s just a great privilege for me to have been nominated and confirmed for this job. So we got a lot going on this year, and you’ll be seeing these things unfold.

It looks like your first big test is this Human Landing System dilemma we’re seeing unfold, with bid protests and Sen. Maria Cantwell’s amendment aiming to reopen the competition that SpaceX won. Have you put your Senate experience to use and talked to your Senate buddies about this?

“Congress has got to do its part”

So. I’ve been having a lot of conversations with senators, congressmen, and particularly their staff, and White House staff as well. This is about the budget, and I’ve been making the case that we need vigorous competition going forward on the Human Landing System. And of course, everything’s frozen up until the first of August, with the protest of the SpaceX award. Depending on how that goes, either way, we’re going to need the competition. Maria Cantwell, at my confirmation hearing, was talking about that. And of course, I assured her that competition is good, and you get greater efficiencies and greater performance out of competition.

But Congress has got to do its part. And that is to prepare, plan for, and provide the money so we can have a vigorous competition and have more than one awardee. In last year’s budget, NASA had requested $3.4 billion for this competition, and Congress came up with $850 million. You just can’t do the competition with that kind of funding.

With the protest litigation pending, and without much funding, it’s unclear if NASA can simply add another company to work alongside SpaceX. But with this 2024 goal in mind, do you think quickly reopening the HLS competition to add another company, alongside SpaceX, should be the way to go? Or should those other companies wait to take advantage of future competitions?  

Well, if SpaceX’s award is not overturned, and you continue as a result of the Government Accountability Office saying that SpaceX is the winner, then what you have to do is look at all these follow-on contracts. SpaceX’s award is for only a demonstration flight that would land humans and return them to Earth safely. Then you get into the use contracts — and there’ll be many of them — and that’s what the competition will be for.

If the bid protest is successful, then you have to start the original competition over again, and that’s where Congress hopefully will provide the resources in which to do a vigorous competition.

The SpaceX award says they can land on the Moon in 2024. Of course, we know that space is hard, that because of developing technology and the unique environment of space and so forth, history often tells us that you get delays. But 2024 is the schedule as outlined in the award, and that’s what we’re planning for — at the same time recognizing the sobering reality that space is hard.

Then-nominee for NASA administrator Bill Nelson bumps elbows with Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate commerce committee that oversees NASA, after his confirmation hearing on April 21st, 2020.
Then-nominee for NASA administrator Bill Nelson bumps elbows with Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate commerce committee that oversees NASA, after his confirmation hearing on April 21st, 2020.
Photo by Joey Roulette / The Verge

Let’s talk about NASA’s Space Launch System. How do you view the future of SLS? What role should SLS play long-term in NASA’s vision for the Moon?

Remember the context, that SLS was conceived when we passed that NASA bill 11 years ago that set NASA on the dual course mandate. The commercial course, and then the other course, was to get NASA out of low-Earth orbit and go explore beyond LEO. It was felt at the time that we needed to get going, and we saw the opportunities under the advice of NASA to take a lot of the technologies that had been developing for the Space Shuttle, enhance them, and utilize them into what is today the SLS. 

The SLS, as we speak, is being stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at [Kennedy Space Center]. So I think there’s going to be a vigorous future for the SLS, and it will take our astronauts into the vicinity of the Moon, into what is called a cislunar orbit. So yes, there will be a lot of activity with the SLS. 

There are some folks in the space community who criticize the SLS program as being a kind of jobs program and that, despite the rocket’s proven shuttle hardware, the cost and design of commercial rockets have evolved significantly since Congress initiated that dual course objective. Would you agree with that at all? 

Remember, space is hard. And the SLS is getting ready to fly. The others that were the ones in the competition, none of those have flown. So you have to build step by step. So put it in context as you’re evaluating that.

On climate and Earth sciences — the Biden administration has vowed to boost the country’s edge in tackling climate change. What kind of new investments and programs are we going to see for climate science and green aviation in NASA’s budget request coming up? 

As I said at my confirmation hearing, if you want to mitigate climate change, you have to measure it. And who does that? That’s NASA that builds the spacecraft. So take, for example, we’re going to be putting up Landsat 9, and this is after 50 years of Landsat in partnership with the [United States Geological Survey]. NASA provides repetitive imaging and it shows, over that half-century, what’s happening in the human interaction with the environment.

I could clearly see that 36 years ago with the naked eye from the window of a spacecraft. I could see, for example, going across the southern tip of Africa and out over the Indian Ocean. And lo and behold, there’s the island nation of Madagascar, and they had cut down all the trees on Madagascar. And when the rains came, there was no vegetation to hold the topsoil. The topsoil went down the rivers, and you could clearly see that from space. All the mouths of the rivers had discolored significantly that bright blue color of the Indian Ocean.

I wanted to switch to international partnerships. As a senator, you sometimes took tough stances on Russia. You frequently called them out in 2018 for their hacking of Florida elections systems. Now you’re at NASA, where Russia is one of its biggest partners in space. Will you have to switch your views a bit with regard to Russia, and what future do you see for NASA’s partnership?

Russia has been our partner ever since the ice was broken in the middle of the Cold War in 1975, with Apollo-Soyuz. We have built the International Space Station with them. I believe that, as long as we’re involved in the space station, Russia will continue to be our partner.

“I see a continuing, close cooperation” with Russia

You probably know that I want to expand the life of the station to 2030* and the idea would eventually be that you let private industry build the space station thereafter. And NASA could concentrate on the continuing exploration of the cosmos. But I see a continuing close cooperation. Regardless of the statements that you hear coming from time to time that would indicate otherwise, I just think, at the end of the day, Russia’s going to continue to be our partner. I think we have to watch the things like Russia and China saying that they’re going to cooperate on landing on the Moon, but it’s a big difference saying that than doing it. So I want to continue the partnership with the Russians. 

What’s your view on partnering with China? Through the Wolf Amendment, NASA is largely barred from partnering with China. Many former NASA officials have supported the idea of working more with China, as they court NASA allies like Russia. And Pam Melroy, your incoming deputy, last year was quoted by Politico as saying that trying to exclude China “is a failing strategy.” Do you agree with her on that, and should NASA engage with China?

Well, it is the law. And until the law is changed, we’re going to adhere to the law. There are obvious things that, regardless of the law, you can still cooperate with China on. For example, if China is successful in landing a lander today on Mars, there are things that we can share. [Editor’s Note: a few hours later, it landed successfully.] Going forward in the future, there are things that we need to share with China, such as the avoidance of space junk. So there are many, many things like that where you can really have a cooperative relationship. 

Given the state of growing Russia-China relations right now, do you think that law, the Wolf Amendment, should be changed? Or would you make any effort to change the Wolf Amendment? 

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

Thanks so much for chatting, Bill. 

My pleasure. Call us anytime!

*Correction, May 17th 6:20PM ET: In an initial version of this interview, Nelson said he expects the International Space Station’s lifetime to end in 2023. He misspoke, and meant 2030, a spokesperson said. The station’s current lifespan extension lasts until 2024, and as a senator, Nelson pushed for a 2030 extension. He still supports the 2030 date.