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Moonshots, private space stations and more: NASA chief Bill Nelson on the future of human spaceflight


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo .– NASA Administrator Bill Nelson believes the future of the agency’s human spaceflight is bright, despite the inherent difficulty of the business and some difficult international issues.

“NASA is an agency of winners,” Nelson told Space.com at the 36th annual Space Symposium, which took place here last month.

The space agency is set to return humans to the moon with its Artemis program while continuing to navigate delicate international relations and look to the future of low Earth orbit, including the ultimate retreat from the International Space Station. And there are plenty of obstacles.

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addresses the crowd on August 24, 2021 during the 36th Annual Space Symposium.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson addresses the crowd on August 24, 2021, during the 36th Annual Space Symposium. (Image credit: Space Foundation)

It’s hard to go to the moon

With Artemis, NASA aims to bring astronauts – including the first woman and the first person of color – back to the lunar surface and, in the longer term, establish a lasting human presence on and around the moon. But, even in the past year, the agency has faced a host of obstacles that have jeopardized its initial goal of a crewed moon landing by 2024.

The 2024 target is ambitious even without obstacles. But, like the rest of the world, NASA has also had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made its work on Artemis and other programs more difficult.

Additionally, the NASA Inspector General recently discovered that delays and challenges in developing the agency’s new next-generation spacesuits, which Artemis astronauts will wear, could make a moon landing in 2024 “impossible. “. Space suit issues, which were caused, in part, by COVID-19 supply chain issues and technical challenges, remain an issue.

But “NASA is a bunch of people who are winners, they are people who can do it,” Nelson told Space.com. “And whatever the obstacle, we will get there … and there have been obstacles.” Nelson added that NASA “has been voted the best COVID management of all departments of the US government. So we are going to do it ”.

“Space is tough,” Nelson said. And, he added of space suits, “they’ve been developed over the last 10 years. It’s a totally different type of suit… we’re developing the spacesuit of the future. And they’ve had some delays. in of course, but space is difficult. And you often run into these delays. “

When asked if NASA could meet its moon landing target in 2024, Nelson replied, “Well, will it be in 2024? No. It will be in 23”. This is a reference to the Artemis 2 mission, which aims to send humans into lunar orbit in 2023. (The moon landing mission is Artemis 3.)

Related: The evolution of the spacesuit in pictures

Space marketing

Space, and in particular low Earth orbit (LEO), is increasingly “commercialized” as more and more private companies become involved in launch technology, satellites, science and more in this neighboring space zone. And, as LEO companies develop and launch new technologies, this commercialization extends to the space station as well.

“We already have a commercial involvement in the space station,” said Nelson.

While the International Space Station may retire as early as 2024, Nelson previously said he believes and hopes the space station’s mandate will extend until 2030. And, speaking with Space.com, he emphasized this hope and relayed that such an extension could help transform LEO into a more commercial area where private space stations could one day operate.

Growing commercial involvement, Nelson said, is “another reason to expand [the space station’s tenure], to continue this commercial participation and to bring the commercial industry to where it becomes attractive for them to set up their own space station. “

“I think, since I’ve been here a few months, that the White House, later, in a short period of time, will issue a statement on this. I expect them to support 2030, because that gives another nine, eight and a half years, so that commercial companies are ready to take control of low earth orbit with commercial station (s) and other activities where they are actually doing profitable businesses, ”said Nelson .

Looking to a future where the International Space Station has retired and LEO is heavily commercialized, Nelson believes this change will allow NASA to “focus on Mars and operations around the moon.”

A constantly evolving international playground

As the agency looks to the Moon and Mars and the future of its role in space and manned spaceflight, it also continues to grapple with international relations.

Recently, the Russian science module Nauka docked with the space station and suffered a malfunction that caused the station to spin. Although it was quickly resolved with the help of ground crews, it was highly unusual and raised some concern. However, Nelson stressed that the relationship between the Russian space agency, known as Roscosmos, and NASA is stronger than ever.

“The Russian experience, the old Soviet experience, is to show you that two military enemies can become friends in civilian space. This has been amply demonstrated since 1975,” he said, referring to the project. Apollo-Soyuz test of that year.

“That’s what I’m hoping for with China,” Nelson added. As NASA and Roscosmos continue to figure out how to collaborate in space, the relationship between China and NASA remains difficult.

Asked if he hopes NASA and China could someday form a partnership, Nelson replied, “It takes two to dance. And so China must be ready. I think we are ready.

There are restrictions on how NASA and China can work together, in that NASA must “certify that it [cooperation] does not harm national security in any way, ”said Nelson. But with transparent communication, it would be possible to work within these parameters, he added.

“I hope we can cooperate,” said Nelson. “Otherwise, it’s a space race.

Email Chelsea Gohd at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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