NASA's Bill Nelson Says Donald Trump's Artemis Target Was Never Realistic

NASA administrator Bill Nelson has said Donald Trump's plan to put humans on the moon by 2024 via the Artemis program was unrealistic. "The target is 2025," he told Newsweek. "2024 was set by the Trump administration and that was never a realistic goal."

NASA is about to launch its first test flight of its moon-bound Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and crew-capable Orion spacecraft on Monday, August 29.

The uncrewed mission, known as Artemis I, will see Orion circle the moon for several days as mission controllers test its capabilities before it speeds back to Earth at around 24,500 miles per hour, putting its heat shield through its paces.

It's the first step in NASA's Artemis program to return humans to the surface of the moon for the first time in over 50 years.

Bill Nelson and Donald Trump
Left: NASA administrator Bill Nelson speaking at a Senate hearing in Washington, D.C., in April, 2021. Right: Former U.S. President Donald Trump seen in Texas in January, 2021. Under the Trump administration the U.S. set a goal of returning people to the moon by 2024—that goal is now 2025. Graeme Jennings/Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP/Getty

In March 2019, Trump's vice president Mike Pence announced a goal to return humans to the moon by 2024, citing competition from other countries such as China as justification for the target.

"What we need now is urgency," Pence told the National Space Council at the time.

"Make no mistake about it—we're in a space race today, just as we were in the 1960s. And the stakes are even higher. Last December, China became the first nation to land on the far side of the moon and revealed their ambition to seize the lunar strategic high ground and become the world's pre-eminent space-faring nation."

A few years on, the situation hasn't changed. Today, NASA faces competition not just from China but from Russia, which announced that it would depart from the International Space Station (ISS) in July this year amid strained international tensions as a result of its invasion of Ukraine.

It marks a shift in the American relationship with Russia in space, which only a few years ago remained close. The U.S., as well as the rest of the world, had relied on Russia as the sole means of ferrying astronauts to and from the ISS from 2011 onwards, until Elon Musk's SpaceX enabled launches from American soil in 2020.

Even before that, Russia and the U.S. were arguably the two most significant partners in the ISS program. The first segment of the ISS to enter space, the Zarya Control Module, was launched aboard a Russian rocket in 1998 with the U.S. following with another module soon after. In the quarter of a century that followed, Russia and the U.S. have worked side by side to keep the ISS running.

This year, in contrast, has been marked with bombastic threats from Russia's former space boss Dmitry Rogozin, who suggested the ISS would plummet without Russia's help and repeatedly stated that Russia was developing its own independent Russian Orbital Service Station (ROSS), with construction scheduled for 2026—though doubt has been cast on how realistic this is.

Meanwhile, Nelson, who was made NASA administrator in May 2021, has acknowledged that competition with China is a problem for the agency. Speaking at a House Appropriations subcommittee in May 2021, Nelson shared a photo of Mars taken by a Chinese rover that had landed on the planet.

"The Chinese government is the only second nation to successfully land on Mars," he said at the time. "We're suddenly realizing that we don't own all of this. And it [China] is a very aggressive competitor."

China, meanwhile, has its own space station well underway. Like the ISS, China's Tiangong space station is set to enable China to carry out unique science experiments in space. It currently consists of a core module which was launched in April 2021, and one laboratory module which was launched in July this year. The third and final module is expected to be launched in October.

Nelson told Newsweek that the prospect of China being a partner in space, as Russia has been for decades, is unfeasible.

"Within the last 10 years, they have gotten exceptionally successful," he said. "But China is very secretive, and they are non-transparent."

Nelson said the recent uncontrolled atmospheric re-entries of Chinese rocket parts is an example of this. "When they put up their first component of their space station, they didn't reserve fuel to have a controlled re-entry on the [rocket's] huge first stage, and it's coming down uncontrolled," he said.

"And they will not share with anybody the trajectory. Not only did they do that for the first station a year or so ago, but the second component they just put up just recently, they did the same thing again."

Nelson also said China has been unwilling to share its scientific discoveries with the world in the same way NASA has. He said that when NASA returned samples from the moon, they were made available to the international community. When China returned samples, they were not.

"The short answer is, the whole idea of working in space is to work together to help each other out," Nelson said. "And hopefully China will get to that point, but thus far they haven't."