CNN Business’ Rachel Crane sat down with Nelson last week to touch on all those topics and more. Below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
CNN Business: It seems unrealistic, that the 2024 deadline for Artemis, NASA’s moon landing program, is going to be met. How optimistic are you?
I’m soberly realistic. The goal is 2024, but space is hard. And we know when you are pushing the edge of the envelope, often there are delays. There’s a number one factor and that’s safety, and it’s involving humans. There might be a delay, but the goal is late 2024.
Oversight officials recently put the cost of Artemis at $86 billion through 2025. Is that a fair estimate? How much do you think the all-in cost of Artemis will be?
Remember it’s another three years away. The selection of astronauts is going very carefully, but remember it’s not just going to be one landing. There are going to be a number of landings over a 10-year period. And so there’s gonna be lots of opportunities.
Interestingly, the first astronauts class where there was considerable diversity of women as well as minorities was the class of 1978. It was the first space shuttle astronaut class, and we have seen the astronaut corps be very diverse ever since.
As for the selection announcement, it won’t be that soon, but it will happen. So stay tuned.
That’s not for me to say. We are in the blackout period that we do not comment on it until the General Accounting Office makes their decision. We expect that around the first of August, and then we’ll know.
Were you surprised they contested the outcome?
No, usually, these big contracts like this are contested. Whether it’s military launch contracts or NASA contracts.
But if the GAO rules in favor of those who are protesting the contract, It would potentially really delay the Artemis lunar landing because you would start the contracting process over.
NASA would certainly be eligible to be put into jobs. And I’ve actually discussed that with members of the House and the Senate. The question is can they pass it? Stay tuned.
The fact that it’s the richest men in the world that we’re talking about here — Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos — and they’re receiving billions of dollars in public funding, that’s a tough pill during such difficult economic times. So how do you reconcile that, and how do you convince the public that these are essential programs?
These billionaires, that you call them, are putting their wealth into the research and development of the space program. We’re going to see the cost come down.
Maybe Starship will be ready to fly, but they have not flown the first stage of the rocket.
But the Space Launch System is, as we speak, being stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at Kennedy Space Center, and at the end of this year, it is going to fly.
So when is Starship going to fly? I hope they fly soon. But we’ve got to have a way to get our astronauts up to the moon, and we’re going to do the first unmanned test launch of Space Launch System at the end of the year.
Do you see a future in which Starship surpasses SLS?
I hope we see a competition. And if Starship is cheaper and better than SLS, then that’s something always to consider for the foreseeable future.
Well, I have talked to those Navy pilots, and they are sure that they saw something. And of course we’ve seen their video from their jets.
What is it, we don’t know.
So, now that I’m here at NASA I’ve turned to our scientists, and I’ve said, ‘Would you, look at it from scientific standpoint. See if you can determine what it is so we can have a better idea.
We don’t know if it’s extraterrestrial. We don’t know if it’s an enemy. We don’t know if it’s an optical phenomenon. We don’t think it’s an optical phenomenon because of the characteristics that those Navy jet pilots described.
I was actually briefed on this a couple of years ago in my capacity on the Senate Armed Services Committee. NASA, appropriately, is going to look at it through the lens of its scientists. We are involved in this research, and I’ve started. I’ve been here a month, and I’ve started.
We are not directly working with the Pentagon, but I can guarantee you, if we find something, the Pentagon will know.
Despite political tensions that exist here on Earth, US and Russia relations in space have a decade’s long history. What are some of the biggest challenges to maintaining space as neutral territory?
I don’t want that cooperation to stop. There is talk coming out of Russia and China that they’re going to do a deal together to go to the moon. I don’t want to see our cooperation with Russia cease.
I can tell you, whatever the politics is, where we have a very strained relationship with Russia right now at the Putin level — I can tell you the workers, the space workers, they want to continue with the Americans.
There’s long been these rumors, though, that Russia intends to pull out of the International Space Station. You have been very vocal that you want to extend the life span of the ISS to 2030. What would it mean for us if Russia pulls out?
It would not be good if Russia starts just depending on China. Then I expect we would have a whole new race to the moon with China and Russia against the US.
But I anticipate — after all the years since 1975 of cooperation — that your politics can be butting heads on Earth while you are cooperating between your two nations in space.
This China-Russia space partnership, what kind of threat would that pose to America’s dominance as a leader in space exploration?
I think it’d be a threat to Russia. Because China, eventually, as they are want to do, start dominating the Russian space station and the Russian space program.
Space has been a domain where enemies on Earth can get together and cooperate. We don’t want to lose that.
How would you characterize the threat of all of this space debris?
It’s dangerous, and shameful for anybody — including the US — that has allowed space debris to be up there.
As we go into space, we want to encourage entrepreneurs to do new things and to utilize the extraordinary Zero-G environment of space to do all kinds of science, as well as entertainment. Should they pay the freight? The answer to that is yes.