POLITICO Pro Q&A: NASA Administrator Bill Nelson

He is also trying to separately secure more money to give the agency a face lift. “I have clearly articulated the need for $5 billion of infrastructure needs for all 10 NASA centers and an additional 10 NASA facilities,” he said.

Nelson, who represented Florida in the House and Senate, says he is seeking ways to engage more with China on common space challenges, even with the strict legal prohibitions placed on space cooperation with Beijing. “We certainly need to cooperate on orbital debris that could strike our space station as well as theirs that they are putting up,” he said. “There are areas of cooperation that we can do with China.”

He discussed NASA’s decision to award a single contract to SpaceX for the Human Landing System, kicking off a protest by Blue Origin and Dynetics. Nelson also spoke about why he thinks NASA is the right place for more scientific inquiry into the recent spate of UFO reports. “It all fits with NASA’s mission for extra territorial intelligence.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

How much does the protest of the Human Landing System complicate the moon goal?

That could have a major alteration depending on how the [Government Accountability Office] rules. But once we know the ruling, the Congress has made it very clear to me that they want competition. So if the quasi-judicial proceeding rules that the award stands, they want competition in the next set of landings that will occur over the course of the decade. We will do that. And I have explained to the appropriators and the authorizers in both houses that we have to have some money to do that.

The NASA budget that came out last year was OK in most areas, but it was entirely deficient in Artemis. That’s what we’re dealing with, and we’re going to have to have some more money. I’ve suggested to them that a way to do it is in the jobs bill. There’s an R&D section of the jobs bill, if they can pass a jobs bill, as well as an infrastructure part, which also NASA desperately needs. It fits very nice with the research and development part.

What has the response been?

I am very optimistic because of the support that I’ve heard directly from senators and congressmen.

What are the other infrastructure needs NASA has?

I have made clear in no uncertain terms that NASA is really hurting on the deterioration of its physical facilities. We’ve even got holes in the roof at the Michoud facility outside of New Orleans where they put together the core of the SLS rocket.

I have clearly articulated the need for $5 billion of infrastructure needs for all 10 NASA centers and an additional 10 NASA facilities. I’ll give you an example. Wallops Island launch facility [is] one of the ones on the top of the list.

You mentioned the Space Launch System. There is a lot riding on that program.

The rocket is ready to fly at the end of this year. It is being stacked in the vehicle assembly building as we speak at Kennedy Space Center. It had its core stage four engine test. It ran for eight minutes, the time needed to get to orbit, without a flaw.

You met with your Russian counterpart Dmitry Rogozin last week. What’s your vision for space cooperation?

Our politics have become very strained. But where is the one area that we have been able to cooperate? It’s been ever since 1975, when an American spacecraft in the middle of the Cold war rendezvoused and docked with a Russian spacecraft, and the crews lived together for nine days. Ever since we have been cooperating. We have extraordinary cooperation.

The rhetoric out of Moscow in regards to space is is getting nastier.

Despite the politics, and some of the rather less than soft statements you hear that sound more political, nevertheless if you talk to the Russian space workers, they want this cooperation to continue with the Americans. So I talked to Rogozin about this. I’ve said, “This is unique, the kind of relationship where we can be at peace cooperating with each other, no matter what our rivalries are on terra firma.” We are partners in space, and I don’t want that to cease.

We’ve seen, for example, just recently they’ve got some kind of module that they are going to launch to the International Space Station, which I think is a pretty good indication that they’re not going to abandon it in four years.

What about talking to China? Is that in the cards?

There are places where we need to cooperate and deconflict on any possible orbits. We certainly need to cooperate on orbital debris that could strike our space station as well as theirs that they are putting up. There are areas of cooperation that we can do with China … recognizing the limits under law that have been placed upon us and recognizing also the realities that the Chinese haven’t been very transparent.

You have directed your top scientist to investigate military reports of unmanned aerial phenomenon.

A couple of years ago, as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I was briefed on what those Navy pilots saw, and I have talked to the Navy pilots. They are quite convinced. And these are realistic folks. This isn’t some UFO tin-foil hat kind. These are pilots who locked their radar on it. They tracked and then they saw it move so fast that they couldn’t believe it. And then they went and tracked it again, locked their radar on it in a new position. So there’s some phenomenon that we need to explain.

Why NASA?

NASA is a natural place. Part of NASA’s science missions is the search for extraterrestrial life (SETI). When we bring a sample back from Mars … what we’ll be looking at is, are there any examples of fossils that might indicate that there were some kind of life, millions and millions of years ago?

Another example: We just had now a sample return on its way from the asteroid Bennu. In that sample, will we see anything in the elements that we get back that would indicate these are the composite elements that could have formed life?

So this is a serious effort by NASA, and it’s been a mission of NASA. And therefore, me asking the top scientist here if he would focus some of his research on what might be this phenomenon that we are seeing — that the military pilots are — it all fits with NASA’s mission for extraterrestrial intelligence.

How formal is your direction on unidentified aerial phenomena?

It is formal in the sense that the scientist that is the head of our science mission directorate, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, I have had several conversations with him, most recently 10 minutes ago, about this very topic and about what he has been doing on SETI and now what he is further doing in an inquiry to see if we have any scientific explanation for some of this.

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