Space veteran Bill Nelson has taken the helm at NASA, America's space agency. NASA now needs to return astronauts to the moon by 2024, and private space companies like SpaceX need to play a bigger role in space exploration.
In an interview last week, Nelson talked about unidentified flying objects (UFOs), NASA's Giant Rocket Space Launch System (SLS) and the Ertemis project to return astronauts to the moon.
NASA Administrator: I don't know what UFO was seen by the US military
Q: Meeting the 2024 deadline to send Artemis to the moon seems unlikely. How optimistic are you about this time frame?
Nelson: I'm being realistic. The goal is to land on the moon by 2024, but space exploration won't be easy. We know that when you push the envelope, there's usually a delay. Safety is the primary factor, especially when it comes to manned space missions. Artemis may be delayed from schedule, but the goal is to land on the moon later in 2024.
Q: Officials overseeing program implementation recently estimated that Artemis would cost $86 billion by 2025. Is this a reasonable estimate? What do you think the total cost of Artemis is?
Nelson: I think we're going to try to stay within the amount that we have. Now, to be clear, the plan for Artemis to land on the lunar surface was a fixed-price contract, and that contract was awarded to SpaceX. They estimated it would cost $6 billion, but offered only about $3 billion. So they're betting $3 billion that their own moon craft will do it all at once. This is a huge investment. If it goes over budget, SpaceX will bear the cost itself.
Q: As we all know, NASA intends to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon. Can you tell us more about the selection process? When will we find out who these lucky people are?
Nelson: Don't forget there are still three years to go. Choosing astronauts is a very careful thing to do, but keep in mind that the whole mission is not just a landing. There will be many lunar landings over the course of 10 years. So there's a lot of opportunities.
Interestingly, the astronaut team of 1978 was the first to include a significant number of women and minorities. It was also the first shuttle crew, and since then the crew has grown more diverse. As for the astronaut selection results will not be so soon, but sooner or later, it will be announced.
Q: NASA received only a quarter of its budget to build the Human Landing System (HLS), the most critical part of the Artemis program. Several companies were vying for the HLS contract, but NASA awarded it to SpaceX alone, citing budget constraints. Now, companies like Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin are challenging that result. Do you think they are right to argue?
Nelson: It's not for me to comment. We are in the middle of a cessation period of contract execution, and we will not comment until the GAO has made a decision. We expect everything to be finalized around August 1.
Q: Were you surprised that they questioned the results?
Nelson: No, big contracts like this are controversial. This is true for both military launch contracts and NASA contracts.
But if the GAO rules in favor of the objectors, it could really delay the moon shot because the whole process of finalizing a contract would have to go through all over again.
But anyway, from a money point of view, NASA is going to need more money over the next decade to get more companies to compete for contracts, and a lot more moon landings. The U.S. Congress has an opportunity to do that, and the jobs bill they're considering is a great opportunity.
NASA is certainly eligible for more money. I've discussed this with members of the House and Senate. The question is can they pass it? Stay tuned for this.
Q. In fact, there's a point to be made that some of the richest people in the world, like Elon Musk and Mr. Bezos, are getting billions of dollars in public money in a time of economic hardship. So how do you reconcile that, how do you convince the public that these are necessary programs?
Nelson: We know that these companies contribute to our space program and to our technology, and I'm trying to reconcile these different voices. And SpaceX says it can take astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. They are actually now transporting cargo and people to the International Space Station at a fraction of the cost that NASA would otherwise spend.
The billionaires you are talking about are pouring their personal wealth into the development of the space program. We can see the costs coming down.
Another example is that SpaceX is still launching satellites for the U.S. Department of Defense. Launch costs have also come down because of competition.
Q: NASA's own giant rocket, the SLS, has cost billions of dollars, is years behind schedule and has yet to launch. SpaceX, by contrast, is making rapid progress in developing a starship. These spaceflight devices could theoretically perform the same task. Do you think starships will make the SLS obsolete?
Nelson: Maybe the starships are ready to take off, but their first stage isn't yet in the air.
The SLS is being assembled in the Flight Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center and will fly later this year.
When will the starship take off? I hope it flies soon. But we have to find a way to get our astronauts to the moon, and we're going to test the SLS for the first unmanned launch at the end of this year.
Q: Do you think starships of the future will surpass the SLS?
Nelson: I hope we're going to see a contest. If starships are indeed cheaper and better than SLS then it is always something to consider for the foreseeable future.
Q: Americans have long been fascinated by UFOs, and the public has seen video footage taken by Navy pilots and heard their descriptions. Do you think aliens have made contact with us?
Nelson: I've talked to the Navy pilots, and they must have seen something. And of course we've seen the video they shot on the plane.
But exactly what that is, we don't know.
So, now I came to NASA, and I asked the scientists, and I said, "Can you scientifically determine what this is so we can understand it better."
We don't know if these UFOs are from another planet. We don't know whether they are enemies or not. We also don't know if this is an optical phenomenon. But based on the characteristics of the phenomenon described by the Navy pilots, we don't think it's an optical phenomenon.
Q: The Pentagon will soon release a report on UFOs. What can NASA learn from this report? Have you ever been involved in work on UFOs? Do you think NASA should be more involved?
Nelson: I actually learned about UFOs a few years ago when I served on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. NASA will take a scientific look at UFOs. We have already begun to participate in this research. I have been here for a month and I have started to work.
But we are not working directly with the Pentagon, but I can assure you that if we find something, the Pentagon will know about it.
Q: In the near future, a series of movies and reality TV shows will begin to be produced in space, as well as several tourist trips to the International Space Station. What do you think of these film projects? Is it appropriate to start a film set in space at taxpayers' expense?
Nelson: When we go into space, we encourage entrepreneurs to do something new, to use the extraordinary zero-gravity environment of space for all kinds of scientific research and entertainment. Of course, they'll have to pay for the shipping. Visitors to the International Space Station should pay a fair market rate for their use, even if they pay for a private rocket ride. I think that's the way they're going to be going forward.