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NASA's administrator on ambitions to return to the moon

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You're now watching live feed from Wenchang Satellite Launch Center.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

That's the sound of China's Chang'e-6 lifting off Friday, carrying a probe to the far side of the moon to gather samples and bring them back to Earth. If successful, it would be a first for any country.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's now starting its epic journey to the moon.

DETROW: The race to get astronauts back to the moon, it's also in full swing, and the U.S. has serious competition.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Soft landing on the moon. India is on the moon.

DETROW: Last August, India successfully landed a spacecraft near the moon's south pole. Five nations in total have now landed spacecraft on the moon. This time around, the race isn't just about who gets there first. It's a race for resources, minerals and maybe even water, which could fuel further space exploration.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And here we go.

DETROW: If the U.S. stays on schedule, it would get humans back to the moon before anyone else. As part of NASA's Artemis program. It's a big if, but NASA is making progress.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And liftoff of Artemis 1.

DETROW: Artemis 1 launched in late 2022. It put an uncrewed Orion capsule in orbit around the moon. Artemis 2 will circle the moon with a crew.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ladies and gentlemen, your Artemis 2 crew.

DETROW: It was supposed to happen later this year but got delayed until 2025. If that goes well, the U.S. will try to put humans back on the moon with Artemis 3. NASA is making a bit of a bet and mostly relying on private companies. In the 1960s, in the heat of the Cold War, budgets were flush.

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NEIL ARMSTRONG: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.

DETROW: Now, the U.S. is hoping that private contractors, mainly Elon Musk's SpaceX, can get Americans back on the moon for a fraction of the price. Earlier this year, two private American companies attempted to land uncrewed research spacecraft on the moon. One succeeded.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And liftoff. Go...

DETROW: And one failed

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Astrobotic Peregrine moon lander ended its mission in a fiery...

DETROW: NASA has set its sights on a big goal - reaching the moon and then Mars. But with limited resources and facing a more crowded field, it's unclear if the U.S. will dominate space as it once did. This week, I went to NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. In the lobby, I touched a moon rock that was collected by the crew of Apollo 17 in 1972, the last time humans stood on the moon. Then I went upstairs to Administrator Bill Nelson's office to talk to him about NASA's plans to return within the next few years.

BILL NELSON: The goal is not just to go back to the moon. The goal is to go to the moon to learn so we can go farther to Mars and beyond. Now, it so happens that we're going to go to a different part of the moon. We're going to the south pole. And that is attractive because we know there's ice there in the crevices of the rocks, in the constant shadow or darkness. And if, in fact, there's water, then we have rocket fuel. And we're sending a probe later this year that is going to dig down underneath the surface on the south pole and see if there is water.

But you go to the moon and you do all kind of new things that you need in order to go all the way to the Mars. The moon is four days away. Mars, under conventional propulsion, is seven or eight months. So we're going back to the moon to learn a lot of things in order to be able to go further.

DETROW: Lay out for me what the timeline is for Artemis right now, because this was the year that that first mission was supposed to take a crew to circle the moon. That's been delayed. What are we looking at right now?

NELSON: Well, understand, we don't fly until it's ready.

DETROW: Yeah.

NELSON: Because safety is paramount. But the plan is September of next year, '25, that the crew of four - three Americans and a Canadian - will circle the moon and check out the spacecraft. Then the contractual date with SpaceX - a fixed price contract - is one year later, September of '26. Now, as you know, SpaceX is just going through the - getting their rocket up on - they're about to launch again this month with their huge rocket. It's got 33 Raptor engines in the tail of it. And then their actual spacecraft, called Starship, they're going to try to get it to come on down. They just did a fuel transfer, by the way, on the last one, which is something that's very hard to do.

DETROW: And it's key for these future missions.

NELSON: And it's absolutely key because they have to basically refuel in low Earth orbit before Starship goes on to the moon.

DETROW: You said that nobody's going to go until they're ready. As you know, there were some reports. The Government Accountability Office had a report late last year raising serious concerns and skepticism about the timeline that you laid out. Do you share that concern? Do you feel like this timeline is realistic?

NELSON: Well, all I can do is look to history. When we rush things, we get in trouble. And we don't want to go through that again. I was on the Space Shuttle 10 days before the Challenger explosion, and that is something you just don't want to go through. Seventeen astronauts have given their lives. Spaceflight is risky, especially going with new spacecraft and new hardware to a new destination. That's why this launch of the Boeing Starliner, it's a test flight. The two astronauts are test pilots. If everything works well, then the next one will be the starting of a cadence of four astronauts in the Starliner.

DETROW: In the '60s and '70s, NASA's moonshot was a central organizing thrust of the U.S. government. The Apollo program cost about $25 billion at the time, the equivalent of a little less than $300 billion today. That's not the case for Artemis. Nelson argues NASA has done big things over and over in the decades since those stratospheric Apollo budgets. And a big part of the current calculation is relying on private companies, not the U.S. government, to get crews to the moon and beyond.

I do want to ask, though. SpaceX has had so much success when it comes to spaceflight, but Elon Musk's decision-making has come under a lot of scrutiny in recent years when it comes to some of his other companies Twitter and Tesla, his kind of engagement in culture war politics. Any concern that so much of this plan is in the hands of Elon Musk at this point in time?

NELSON: Elon Musk has - one of the most important decisions he made, as a matter of fact, is he picked a president named Gwynne Shotwell. She runs SpaceX. She is excellent. And so I have no concerns.

DETROW: No concerns. When you were on the Hill the other day, a lot of the questions came back to China. And in speeches you have given, you keep coming back to China as well. What is the concern about - you know, we just had a report on our show. One of our reporters watched one of these launches in person and was reporting on just how focused China is to get back to the moon as well. Why is it key to you? Why does it matter so much that the U.S. beat China back to the moon?

NELSON: Well, first of all, I don't give a lot of speeches about China, but people ask a lot of questions about China. And it's important simply because I know what China has done on the face of the Earth. For example, where the Spratly Islands, they suddenly take over a part of the South China Sea and say, this is ours, you stay out. Now, I don't want them to get to the south pole, which is a limited area that where we think the water is. It's pockmarked with craters. And so there are limited areas that you can land on on the south pole. I don't want them to get there and say, this is ours, you stay out. It ought to be for the international community, for scientific research. So that's why I think it's important for us to get there first.

DETROW: The U.S. is part of a lot of different treaties in terms of, you know, sharing its work with other countries. I guess people in China might hear that and say, well, we're concerned the U.S. would do the same.

NELSON: Well, but we are the instigators with the international community, now upwards of 40 nations - and that will rise - of the Artemis Accords, which are a - common-sense declarations about the peaceful use of space, which includes working with others, which includes going to somebody else's rescue, having common elements so that you could in space. And a vast diversity of nations have now signed the accords, but China and Russia have not.

DETROW: You said, I don't give a lot of speeches about China, but I'm asked about it a lot. This is being framed in those same space race terms in many ways, the U.S. versus China. Is that how you see it? Is that how you think about it?

NELSON: With regard to going to the moon?

DETROW: Yeah.

NELSON: Yes.

DETROW: And that's specifically about making sure that those resources around the south pole are protected.

NELSON: And the peaceful uses for all peoples. That's basically the whole understanding of the space treaty that goes back decades ago. It is another iteration of the declaration of the peaceful uses of Space.

DETROW: How else can the U.S. ensure that, other than getting there first?

NELSON: Well, you know, we've got a lot of partners. And the partners generally, you know, nations that get along with China as well, nations that get along with Russia. By the way, we get along with Russia. Look. Ever since 1975, in civilian space, we have been cooperating with Russia in space.

DETROW: And that's continued throughout the Ukraine war in space.

NELSON: Without a hitch.

DETROW: On China, how do you balance the speed and urgency and concern that you feel with the safety element that we talked about before? Because both are very important to you.

NELSON: We don't fly until it's ready. That's it.

DETROW: And the last question I had on China is when you were on the Hill the other day, a lot of the questions had to do with resources, but also concern that China might be viewing lunar activity through a military prism. Do you share that concern?

NELSON: I do.

DETROW: Can you tell us what specifically you're concerned about?

NELSON: Well, I think if you look at their space program, most of it has some connection to their military.

DETROW: What's the solution to that, then, from the U.S.'s perspective and NASA's perspective?

NELSON: Well, take history. In the middle of the Cold War, two nations realized they could annihilate each other with their nuclear weapons. So was there something of high technology that the two nations, Russia, in this case, the Soviet Union, and America could do? And an Apollo spacecraft rendezvoused and docked with a Soviet Soyuz. And the crews lived together in space. And the crews became good friends. Now, that says a lot. So that's what history teaches us that we can overcome. I would like for that to happen with China. But the Chinese government has been very secretive in their space program, their so-called civilian space program.

DETROW: You've cared about all of this stuff for a long time. You represented Florida in the Senate. You flew on the Space Shuttle, as you mentioned. Now you're in charge of NASA. What is your goal for when you leave NASA? Where do you want the agency to be on all of these ambitious projects?

NELSON: Well, understand that this is a group of wizards, and I just am privileged to tag along with them. I try to give them some direction, particularly with the interface of the government. I will be very happy if NASA, because of some little minor contribution that I might have made, will send our star sailors sailing on a cosmic sea to far off cosmic shores.

DETROW: Administrator Bill Nelson, thank you so much.

NELSON: It's a pleasure.

DETROW: NASA's privatized push will face another big test Monday night. The long-delayed Boeing Starliner is scheduled to make its first crewed flight to carry two test pilots to the International Space Station and back. If successful, it will help cement the role of private companies in the space race. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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