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Senator Nelson on the Way Forward to a Sustainable Space Future

In this exclusive interview, Nelson shares what inspired his own journey to space and what he considers the country’s top space policy priorities at a time of unprecedented interest in “the final frontier.”

Many milestones in space have occurred since that day in May 57 years ago when President Kennedy committed America to putting a man on the moon and return him safely by the end of the decade. The United States helped birth modern space exploration, from the pioneering Apollo missions to leading a decade-long, multi-country effort to construct the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998, aided by the first reusable spacecraft ever developed: the American shuttles.

And few senators possess the historical perspective on the importance of space more than those who have served as astronauts, including the late John Glenn of Ohio, the first American to orbit Earth, and Bill Nelson, the Democratic senator representing Florida’s Space Coast, who became the second sitting member of the United States Congress to fly in space. As a Florida congressman, he spent six days orbiting the Earth onboard the space shuttle Columbia in January 1986 — 16 days before the Challenger disaster.

Today, as ranking member of the Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, Nelson helps oversee U.S. space policy, including NASA. In 2012, he sponsored the Space Exploration Sustainability Act, calling on NASA to sustainably expand permanent human presence beyond Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) and to expand economic activity in space.

In an exclusive Q&A with Via Satellite, Nelson shares what inspired his own journey to space and what he considers the country’s top space policy priorities at a time of unprecedented interest in “the final frontier.”

VIA SATELLITE: You grew up in Florida near Cape Canaveral — how did that influence your perspective on space and its potential for humanity, and eventual decision to become an astronaut?

Nelson: I had a front-row seat when the Cape first came alive in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with the furious pace of the early space program and the race to the moon. It certainly inspired me and it continues to inspire so many others all over the world to wonder about the cosmos, many of whom then seek careers in science and technology. Steve Jobs was just one example of a technology pioneer whose contributions shaped the world we live in today. But without the space program, he probably never would have gotten into computers.

That’s why as a young congressman, I immediately jumped at the chance to be a part of the House Science Committee. I started getting involved in space legislation right away, including co-sponsoring the original Commercial Space Launch Act. And when I had the enormous fortune of being able to participate in the space program directly, I couldn’t turn the opportunity down.

VIA SATELLITE: What lessons from your time in space have informed your view of the strategic importance of having a robust space policy?

Nelson: I certainly experienced what many astronauts have referred to as the “orbital perspective,” and it was life changing. Looking out the Columbia orbiter’s window, you can’t help but be struck by Earth’s beauty, but also its fragility with the chilling blackness of space as a backdrop. You don’t see any borders, you don’t see so many of the petty things that divide us. You see we all share a common home, and we all can be part of a common future exploring the vastness of space and discovering the untold mysteries that await us. I think if more people could share that experience or at least appreciate the perspective, we’d get a lot more done.

I also gained an appreciation of everything it takes to make space travel possible — the technology, the infrastructure, and most importantly the dedication and expertise of the workforce. From the launch director in the control room at the Cape to the quality inspector at the avionics vendor, to the flight dynamics engineer in Houston, everyone has to work together with very little, if any, room for error. If we ever lose the ability to do that — and we have certainly come far too close for comfort before, in my mind — it will be incredibly hard to get back. And from a strategic perspective, that will mean we are stuck on the ground looking up at those who were less foolish.

VIA SATELLITE: How has U.S. space policy changed today from previous years? Are we at a unique place in history with the rise of the iPhone, affordable launch and the rise of high-speed satellites, among other developments?

Nelson: In many ways it has changed, but of course the physics is still the same. It still takes a tremendous amount of energy to accelerate something the size of a city bus to 17,000 miles per hour. Space remains unforgiving to the human body, and the risks involved in human space travel must not go unheeded. It also remains the case that the government must lead the way in terms of funding scientific research and in exploring the frontier where profitable business ventures aren’t yet possible.

But we are at an inflection point. Advances in technology along with the resources and ingenuity of entrepreneurs are bringing about new business enterprises in space, as well as making space transportation more affordable. The development of a Saturn 5 class super heavy lift rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), along with other deep space vehicles including the Orion capsule, will enable us to return humans to deep space and, relatively soon, reach Mars — while commercially operated crew systems will make transportation to and from LEO more affordable. That will open all kinds of new opportunities for international collaborations as well as for the private sector.

VIA SATELLITE: What does SpaceX’s successful test launch of the Falcon Heavy mean for NASA, the government, and plans for the SLS?

Nelson: The successful test launch of Falcon Heavy, and particularly the simultaneous landing of the side boosters, was absolutely thrilling. And all of the excitement that launch generated shows how our efforts to revitalize the Cape are succeeding in a big way. I think you’ll see Falcon Heavy making an immediate impact in the commercial market. And I think Falcon Heavy has a lot to offer for both national security and civil space launches as NASA and the Air Force work with SpaceX to figure out how best to take advantage of its capability. But when you need to send very large items to distant destinations, like with crewed interplanetary vehicles, you really need a Saturn 5 class launcher, and that’s where SLS comes in. And I don’t think there’s commercial demand for such a huge vehicle right now — the government is likely to be the only customer for the foreseeable future.

VIA SATELLITE: What do you consider our biggest space policy priorities?

Nelson: Our biggest priorities in terms of space policy must provide stability by continuing the bipartisan tradition of maintaining U.S. leadership in space. We must continue our national security efforts, advance our scientific goals, such as understanding our changing climate, and sustain space exploration through collaboration with government and industry.

In the near term that means we need to get our astronauts launching once again on American rockets from American soil. We need to keep developing the systems that will allow us to travel further into space than ever before. We need to keep a balanced portfolio of ambitious scientific and aeronautics missions that will enable new discoveries and new technologies while also continuing to improve safety, accountability, and stewardship of the taxpayers’ investments. We also need to vastly improve our approach to developing and fielding new systems, particularly for national security space. We simply must not be out-innovated, or we will lose our command of the high ground and find ourselves far too vulnerable to those who would do us harm.

VIA SATELLITE: I’ve heard it said that future wars will be fought in the theater of technology/cyber warfare here and in space. What are we doing to protect ourselves and our space assets against the cyber threat?

Nelson: The threat is real and it’s now; and it affects warfare in every domain — air, land, sea, space, and of course, cyberspace. So we must ensure the proper policies, strategies and resources are in place to defend the nation. Particularly in cyberspace, the United States must make clear to our enemies the consequences of attacking us and do everything we can to deter attacks before they happen.

VIA SATELLITE: Are you encouraged by efforts to leverage the U.S. National Lab on the ISS to attract private sector investment in LEO? What role should the private sector have in commercializing low Earth orbit?

Nelson: Continuously operating and crewing a football field-sized laboratory in space for more than 17 years is one of the greatest feats of human ingenuity ever, but we’re just getting going. Right around the corner, there are new endeavors in space enabled by the ISS and entrepreneurs and innovators in the private sector. Look at what’s already happened in the U.S. launch industry as a result of the commercial crew and cargo programs. In 2017, we tied the all-time record for U.S. commercial launches. In 2018, I’m confident we’ll beat the record. That is an incredible feat given where we were seven years ago when there were no U.S. commercial launches.

The ISS National Lab will enable more and more scientists and entrepreneurs to try out new ideas. And we need that, because each time our new exploration systems push the frontier farther, we’ve got to have commercial ventures fill in behind. If we use the analogy of the American frontier — we need LEO to be the St. Louis. That can’t happen without profitable business ventures — with customers other than the U.S. government — taking over sustaining the infrastructure.

VIA SATELLITE: What must we get right in the next few years to ensure the U.S. remains a global space leader?

Nelson: We need to keep a steady course and we must execute. We cannot allow the space program to become embroiled in the partisan chaos that has infected far too many other areas of our government, and we must ensure NASA has the qualified leadership and the support in Congress and the administration to navigate one of the most challenging periods in the history of the space program.

VIA SATELLITE: How can we move the space program forward in a divisive political environment — or is this one area where both sides of the aisle can meet and work together?

Nelson: Space has remained one of the last refuges from partisan politics, and it’s incredibly important to keep it that way. I’ve always been able to find common ground with partners on both sides of the aisle to move the space program forward. It was my partnership with former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison that resulted in the NASA Authorization of 2010 and set the course at NASA that we are on still today. I continue to work with Republican appropriators like Rep. John Culberson and Sen. Richard Shelby. And as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I’m working arm-in-arm on NASA and commercial space bills with Ted Cruz, John Thune, and many others from both sides of the aisle. The same is true on the Armed Services Committee for national security space. Frankly, in space policy we’ve thus far been able to maintain the kind of consensus-building that we should be striving for more of in these deeply divisive times. So it is my hope and my belief that will continue.

VIA SATELLITE: You have noted publicly how important it is for NASA administrators to be appointed for their scientific experience and leadership versus being a political appointment. Please elaborate on why this is important, and your counter to critics who say your opposition of President Trump’s choice for NASA administrator could cause harm given that the space agency has gone without a chief for so long.

Nelson: First, I think it’s important to note that Robert Lightfoot has done a fantastic job at the helm of NASA since Charlie Bolden left. The praise for him and the job he’s done has been nearly universal. Really, the only thing he lacks is the mandate that comes with the presidential appointment and Senate confirmation.

There are a lot of reasons why it is important to have a well-respected and experienced space professional — someone like Robert — at the helm of NASA. You’ve got to have someone who has the respect of the workforce and of the leaders who run the programs. It’s important for running the agency, it’s important for engaging with industry and the scientific community, and it’s critically important to working with Congress. If we want to keep the kind of non-partisan, consensus environment for NASA that is so very important, the agency needs a leader who Congress sees as credible, and who isn’t burdened by political baggage.

But most important of all, three tragic human space flight accidents have taught us that the NASA administrator must be personally involved in, and responsible for, safety of flight. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board made it clear that despite everything done after the Challenger accident and Apollo 1 fire, NASA still had a flawed safety culture. The opinions and recommendations of engineers and safety managers were being suppressed and filtered and were not making it to agency leadership. So the agency was restructured so that the head of the mission directorates, the agency chief engineer, the chief of safety for the agency, and other technical authorities all report to the administrator. And when it comes to safety of flight decisions, they must bring dissenting voices and opinions to the head of the agency. The NASA administrator must understand the complex technical issues, weigh the risk, and make the decision to go or no go. Now, for the first time in history, we’ve got three new human space flight systems we are developing concurrently, and we’ve still got the ISS that we must continue to fly safely. By law, the NASA administrator is personally responsible and accountable for the safety of flight of these systems. So this is not simply a matter of being picky. I believe it is quite literally a matter of life or death.

Given all of this, I feel very strongly that Congressman Bridenstine does not have the right background or qualifications to lead NASA. He has a history of taking political stances that are divisive even within his own party, he has no experience leading or administering a large organization, and he doesn’t have any scientific or engineering qualifications. Putting the wrong person in as NASA administrator would be vastly more damaging than having a well-qualified leader and space professional running the agency.

VIA SATELLITE: To conclude, where are the biggest opportunities for the U.S. space industry to make a difference to the country long term?

Nelson: Industry is a vital part of everything we’re doing in space. Whether it’s the Commercial Crew Program that’s going to return our capability to fly our American astronauts from American soil, constructing the biggest rocket in the world to take us to deep space, or building a space probe that might discover extraterrestrial life, industry is building nearly everything. The biggest impact they can have is by delivering on all those programs, by bringing the innovation and competitiveness that industry so excels at to enable new opportunities and discoveries, and by using the same technologies and capabilities to build new business ventures that will create more jobs and propel our economy. VS