NASA Administrator Promises To Maintain U.S. Edge Over China In Space To Congress

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NASA Administrator Bill Nelson took a wide variety of questions at a hearing of the House Committee of Appropriations earlier today as part of NASA’s budget for the fiscal year that ends in 2025. Administrator Nelson’s hearing follows NASA’s budget request earlier this year, a document with significant cuts to science missions but saw the space agency stick to its funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.

NASA also separated key portions of SpaceX’s Human Landing System (HLS) contract from later missions in its multi billion dollar Artemis program in the budget release, and in his hearing today, Nelson stressed that Starship was an integral piece of a ‘chain’ of events that will enable the U.S. to return to the Moon after the Apollo program.

NASA Administrator Stresses On Intangible Benefits Of Space Spending In House Hearing

April has been a busy month for the space agency, as it prepares for a crucial Boeing crewed test flight to the International Space Station (ISS) and also expands its lunar exploration partnership under the Artemis Accords. The latest members of NASA’s international initiative are Switzerland and Sweden, and at the hearing, Nelson and committee officials agreed on the need to ensure American leadership in space.

2024 is also seeing NASA test its quiet supersonic test bed aircraft designed to potentially allow commercial aircraft to meet noise requirements over populated areas and fly supersonic at the same time. Congress members questioned Administrator Nelson about the benefits of this test flight, as well as other aeronautics platforms such as the T-38 supersonic trainer aircraft.

Costs remained front and center at the hearing, particularly due to the high development costs for the SLS rocket. Developing a rocket, particularly the scale of the SLS requires billions of dollars in investment, and in response to worries about the high SLS spending, Nelson shared that the costs will come down once the rocket completes multiple successful flights.

A part of the habitation module of NASA’s lunar space station Gateway is visible after teams completed their welding tasks earlier this month. Image: NASA

A major portion of the hearing was dedicated to the members of Congress discussing the steps that NASA is taking to stay ahead of China in its Moon exploration efforts. One area where the agency thinks it has an advantage is its choice of the landing site for the astronauts. When asked by the congress members why NASA has chosen to go to the lunar South Pole instead of the Far Side like China, Nelson replied that it is more profitable for the space agency to do so and that he remains unaware of the motives behind the Chinese plans.

When asked if NASA has the flexibility to adapt its operations in regards to maintaining the Artemis schedule, Nelson stressed that the first crew launch will take place in September 2025. The first landing is scheduled for September 2026 through SpaceX’s Starship Human Landing System. Safety is paramount in deciding lunar exploration timelines, and after SpaceX, NASA’s second contractor (Blue Origin) plans to attempt to land on the Moon in 2029.

Two years after SpaceX’s first landing, NASA will send its Gateway lunar space station to the Moon as well. Nelson added that if he “had anything to do with it,” there wouldn’t be a gap between U.S. and Chinese space exploration, and part of his plans includes keeping the ISS up in space for as long as possible before other American alternatives are available.

According to him, NASA isn’t planning to go to the Moon for just three or four flights. “We are planning this to keep going out into the future until we get sufficient technology and systems that we think can go Mars.” Research currently being done by Japanese researchers can provide astronauts the ability to stay on the surface for as much as thirty days, according to Nelson.

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