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NASA Boss Bill Nelson On a Space Race With China, the Future of the Space Station and More

6 minute read

It took Bill Nelson 35 years to go from low-Earth orbit to 300 E. St. in Washington, D.C. Low-Earth orbit is where Nelson, then a U.S. representative from Florida, spent six days as a payload specialist aboard the space shuttle Columbia, from Jan. 12 to Jan. 18, 1986. He returned to Earth and eventually made his way to the U.S. Senate, serving from 2001 to 2019, and spending much of his tenure promoting one of his home state’s highest-profile industries—space—distinguishing himself as perhaps NASA’s most dogged legislative champion. In 2021, he was tapped to run the space show himself, when President Joe Biden appointed him NASA’s fourteenth Administrator, placing him in charge of the space agency’s sprawling, multi-state—and multi-planet—operation.

Nelson’s cosmic remit is a big one, and he recently spoke with TIME about the job, as well as the U.S.’s present—and, much more important, long-term—ambitions in space.

NASA just completed a very good year—most spectacularly with the landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, and the completed construction of the new Space Launch System [SLS] moon rocket. To what do you attribute the space agency’s banner 2021?

NASA is like the little engine that could—”I think I can, I think I can.” And that’s attributable to the extraordinary workforce. For the last nine years in a row, NASA has been named the best place to work in the federal government. Employees get mentoring from their elders and management and through an extensive internship program. Thirty percent of our interns go on to work for the agency. Go anywhere in the world, and next to the New York Yankees’ logo, it’s the NASA logo that is the most recognized and appreciated. It’s a way for the U.S. government to project soft power and to work not only with our natural allies like the European Space Agency, but our one-time mortal enemy, Russia.

That early space race with the then-Soviet Union was actually a very bracing thing for both countries, driving technological innovation. Could you envision a similar race with China in the 2020s—and could space eventually be a venue for Sino-American detente as it was with the U.S. and Russia?

Yes to the first question, and maybe to the second. Competition is good. It brings out the greatest efficiencies and the ultimate use of the talents that we have. As to a detente with China, that’s just a qualified yes because there is nothing thus far to indicate that China is in any way willing to be less secretive about their space program and the military aspects of their space program.

That secretiveness extends to China’s space budget. Beijing claims its space program is funded at just $8 billion a year, but most people consider that an extreme lowball because their space program is embedded in their military, and their military budget is not disclosed. With enough money and enough will, could China beat the U.S. back to the moon?

Not if I have anything to say about it, and not if Joe Biden has anything to say about it.

And yet the plans to have American boots on the lunar surface have already slipped from 2024 to 2025 at the very earliest. Part of the problem is that NASA’s funding allows for only one launch per year of the SLS moon rocket. Back in the Apollo era, we launched nine crewed moon missions from just 1968 to 1972.

For a sustained landing program we’ve got to have more money. That’s in the 2023 budget. But you have to be patient too. Our 1986 shuttle flight scrubbed four times on the launch pad, only to have a flawless six-day mission on the fifth try. Then just days after we landed, Challenger launched and blew up. So in other words, it is ingrained in me to take your time and do it right.

The commercial sector is playing an increasing role in space—launching astronauts to low-Earth orbit, tourists to suborbital space and even looking at crewed missions to the moon and Mars. Could you ever see a time when there is no need for a government-run space agency?

I’m going to answer your question with an example. Look at the extraordinary commercial activity of the world airline industry that started with government investment into designing, testing, and building airplanes. In reality, on any cutting-edge new technologies, the government needs to be sowing the seed corn to ensure it will produce a plentiful crop. Look at the pharmaceutical industry. What about this miracle of COVID vaccines? That didn’t just happen, right? I was glad there was government investment in that.

Does that idea apply to the International Space Station too? The station has been in continuous operation for more than 20 years and is expensive to maintain. How much longer do you see it operating and will the U.S. get out of the space station business after that?

It’s the intent of Congress, in coordination with NASA, to keep the space station running until 2030. Then what we are doing is encouraging industry to get involved with commercial space stations, so that we bring manufacturing, research and production off the face of the Earth. That is happening and that will accelerate and so eventually what NASA wants to do is turn that over to the commercial sector, so that NASA can concentrate on exploring the heavens.

Exploring the heavens gets us to politics. One of the things that’s kept us from returning to the moon for the last 50 years is a lack of continuity, with every new presidential administration tossing out the past one’s plans for NASA and implementing its own.

Yes, in order for a space program to be successful It has to be a multi-administration effort. It’s like building an aircraft carrier; that takes about 12 years and spans many administrations. So the space program has to be the same way.

Is that even possible in our polarized times? You were in Congress for 30 years; what do you miss least about it?

The inability to get along and therefore get things done, because of excessive partisanship and huge ideological rigidity. That’s not the way it was when I was a young congressman. And that’s not the way it was when I came into the Senate—even after that disputed [2000] election with 537 votes [in Florida], Republicans and Democrats got along, and they could still today because they’re all wonderful people. But they are listening to small cliques, extreme views, which is eliminating that very necessary middle ground.

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Write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com