NASA Boss Bill Nelson Says China 'Aggressive Competitor' After Mars Landing

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said China's successful rover landing on Mars is a warning to the U.S. government that the space agency faces stiff competition in the future.

Testifying before the House Appropriations subcommittee on the president's 2022 space-related budget request, Nelson called China's space program "a very aggressive competitor," saying NASA now realises it doesn't own the lunar surface.

China's space agency landed a rover on Mars over the weekend, making it the second country ever to do so, after the U.S. Nelson issued a message of congratulations in a statement published by NASA on Wednesday.

He said: "As the international scientific community of robotic explorers on Mars grows, the United States and the world look forward to the discoveries Zhurong will make to advance humanity's knowledge of the Red Planet."

Nelson struck a rather different tone on China's achievement while testifying that same day, reflecting on the country's plans to explore the moon and the pace of the U.S. program.

He told the assembled congressmen: "They are getting ready, and have already publicly announced, that they want to send three big landers to the South Pole of the moon, and that's where the water is. And we are still a year or two away from a much smaller lander going there.

"What I'm saying is, we're suddenly realising that we don't own all of this. And it is a very aggressive competitor."

Citing unnamed public reports, Nelson said China's government is "studying the possibility" of conducting a moon fly-by and landing within this decade. The U.S. needs to "get off our duff" and push ahead with NASA's human landing system, he added.

He said: "I think that's now adding a new element as to whether or not we want to get serious and get a lot of activity going in landing humans back on the surface of the moon."

Nelson's sentiment echoes the "space race"—a period of competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the late 1950s and 1960s during which the nations rushed to advance their space capabilities.

Brian Odom, acting chief historian at NASA, told Newsweek last month that a series of Soviet successes in space during that time pressured the U.S. into finding ways to succeed in space.

Without such pressure, Odom said, the legendary Apollo program may never have gotten the funding it did.

NASA is currently developing its Human Landing System, which will take astronauts to the surface of the moon and allow them to live there for up to a week.

It is part of Artemis—NASA's current moon mission program that aims to land the first woman and first person of color on the lunar surface as soon as 2024.

Bill Nelson speaking
Bill Nelson speaks during a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation confirmation hearing on April 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. He was made NASA administrator earlier this month. Saul Loeb/Pool/Getty