New Guard

We Interviewed the New Head of NASA About SpaceX, China, and Aliens

The new head of NASA, Steve Jurczyk, is getting serious about space policy — and the future of the Artemis program.

Feb 1 by Dan Robitzski
Futurism / Illustration by Tag Hartman-Simkins
Image by Futurism / Illustration by Tag Hartman-Simkins

When Joe Biden became president, there was a changing of the guard at NASA. Trump appointee Jim Bridenstine resigned, leaving associate administrator Steve Jurczyk in charge.

NASA hired Jurczyk as an electrical engineer in the late 1980s, but over time he climbed the ladder until he was the highest-ranking civilian at the agency. Now he’s in charge until President Biden decides to name a formal replacement. During his tenure, he’ll face unique challenges — not the least of which is running the space agency from his basement due to the pandemic.

Futurism caught up with Jurczyk to talk Artemis, SpaceX, climate change, China, and yes, aliens. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Futurism: NASA has largely maintained the reputation of being an apolitical organization. I’m curious how you and your colleagues, as long-term NASA leaders, juggle these administration-spanning projects with shifting political priorities. Is that a challenge as the president comes in and changes the mission?     

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Steve Jurczyk: Yeah, it is a challenge. I think you articulated the challenge in that the missions we’re trying to accomplish and the programs that enable those missions can run from two or three years to decades. And so the political process and the budget process don’t necessarily optimally support any activity, mission, or program that takes five, 10, 15 years to plan and implement. So that is a challenge.

Our fundamental strategy, or how administrations want to use assets strategically, really doesn’t change from administration to administration. There are some enduring [priorities] that carry over related to expanding knowledge through both science and human exploration missions. Now, priorities within science and how we expand knowledge will vary, but that mission remains the same. I think the United States has led in human exploration ever since the days of Apollo and the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and now the Artemis program. So there are lots of reasons why we want to be the leader, worldwide, in human exploration, including utilizing NASA as a tool of soft power with respect to our international relations.

We have to be able to adjust our tactical plans, our program plans to align with those priorities within those bigger strategic areas that are more enduring.

Your predecessor laid out a lot of highly-ambitious plans, like landing the first woman on the Moon by 2024 and establishing a long-term lunar base. I assume Artemis isn’t being abandoned, but are you still pursuing those same timelines?

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SJ: Every indication we have so far, in week two of the new administration, is that Artemis will not be abandoned.

Well, of course, I exaggerate there.

SJ: One of the reasons [for going to the Moon] is to demonstrate technological capabilities that we’re going to need for, eventually, a mission to Mars. And then the ultimate goal is a crewed mission to Mars and the Martian surface. I think using the International Space Station, using missions around and on the surface of the Moon, with the ultimate goal being Mars, is still the strategic direction for human exploration.

I think that the Moon-to-Mars strategy of Artemis is still our strategic vector. And then we have to look at the funding in our fiscal year 2021 appropriation. We’ve proposed roughly $3.2 billion in 2021 for the human landing system. And I think we received roughly about a quarter of that, about $850 million.

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So given that change in budget, particularly for that landing system, we’ll have to look at the timeline for what we now call the Artemis III mission, which is the mission that would land the first woman and the next man on the Moon in 2024. Mostly driven by budget and not necessarily by policy, we’re looking at the timeline for the Artemis III mission and that might affect the Artemis IV mission. We are holding the Artemis I mission for later this year. The baseline is to launch in early November. That’s the only uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft. And then we’re planning on the crewed test flight, a mission to go around the Moon and return, Artemis II, in the 2023 timeframe.

The Perseverance rover is scheduled to land on Mars in February. Stashed on board is a small helicopter designed to fly in Mars’ thin atmosphere and weak gravity. It’s highly experimental. Would you put ten dollars on the Marscopter successfully becoming the first human-made aircraft to fly on an alien world?

SJ: It is very experimental, the technology development. If it works, it has some operational use. It could be a scout for the rover. It could kind of look beyond the rover’s range for trajectory planning, for how we drive the rover on the surface of Mars.

I think there’s a pretty good shot. I think I probably would put $10 down that it would work.

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The Marscopter is a really nice partnership that started when I was the director at the Langley Research Center, with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), to use our helicopter expertise, our rotary wing expertise, and aeronautics research to design a very, very lightweight, relatively-small helicopter with large blades counter-rotating at fairly high speed to be able to generate the lift that the helicopter needs in the Martian atmosphere. The atmospheric pressure is equivalent to 100,000 feet on earth. So yeah, we did testing in the vacuum chamber at JPL and flew the rover in the vacuum chamber at the low atmospheric pressure. I believe if we land and deploy the rover to the surface, there’s a good probability we’ll fly some distance on Mars. But it is very experimental.

It’s been reported that the White House wants NASA to reemphasize climate change. I’m curious what you think about NASA’s capacity to focus on climate change research in addition to space exploration, and how you plan to balance those priorities.

SJ: I mean, the major contribution that NASA makes to climate change is in research and through our science missions. So we have some missions in earth science that have been proposed to be terminated by the previous administration over the last few years, but usually, the funding for those missions gets put back in by Congress. So no change there. Those missions are the PACE Mission and the CLARREO Pathfinder Mission. CLARREO Pathfinder is very specifically tied to climate change research. We’ve been making measurements of the Earth’s radiation budget by measuring the energy coming off the top of the atmosphere for decades now. Knowing what the Sun’s solar output is and what’s coming out of the top of the atmosphere of the Earth system, we can determine the amount of energy being trapped within the Earth system. What CLARREA Pathfinder does is takes more precise measurements of that energy coming off the top of the atmosphere. It gives us kind of the colors of energy, the spectral content of the energy coming off the atmosphere, which will help improve climate change models.

So those will most likely be supported by the administration to continue. Then we have the Decadal Survey. NASA and external scientists get together every 10 years and determine what the appropriate research priorities should be and what observations are required to enable those science priorities. So we’re in the early years of the last Decadal Survey for earth science. We’ll be looking at how to accelerate some of that research, the measurements that are required, and how to fold those missions into our plan for accelerating those and contributing more in the near-term to research for global climate change. We haven’t done the work yet, so I’m not sure what additional funding is required to accelerate those operations and missions.

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Of course, these are early days.

SJ: Yeah, it would be pretty premature to comment on what the impacts might be on the overall budget of NASA and other areas of NASA. But we’re going to do that work and see how we can potentially accelerate some of those observations or earth science missions, to accelerate the research, to contribute to the administration’s whole of government approach to dealing with climate change.

Let’s talk about the Space Launch System. It has many similar goals to SpaceX’s Starship. I’m curious what you see happening, say, if either the SLS or the Starship is ready and working before the other one. Is there room in the sky for both? Or would you expect NASA to rely more heavily on whichever one is operational first?

SJ: Yeah, that’s a challenging question to answer because, you know, it involves speculation. What I can say now is that the Space Launch System is farther along than the Starship or any other commercial [project] with respect to a super heavy-lift capability that’s purpose-built for human spaceflight missions. I think in the near term, we’re really focused on getting SLS developed and getting this crewed test flight on the schedule so we can then do future Artemis missions including the first crewed mission to the lunar surface. We will always look at evolving capabilities within the industry and look for how they can best be utilized to meet our goals and objectives, including those at the heart of this program. But it’s hard for me to determine.

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I know what the timelines are for the SLS, but it’s hard to determine what the timeline is and capabilities are for the Starship. And then the Starship is the spacecraft, but there’s still the undeveloped super-heavy lift rocket that would actually lift the Starship to orbit and eventually on to the Moon. I applaud SpaceX and what they’ve been able to accomplish in partnership with us through the commercial cargo and the commercial crew program. It’s just I know what our plan is for SLS, and it’s just hard for me to determine how we would leverage capabilities like Starship and the super-heavy that would launch Starship without understanding their timeline, their capabilities, and a lot more detail.

It’s sort of an apples-to-oranges comparison between the SLS and Starship because the Starship is really the spacecraft. Rather, it’s where we are at SLS versus where SpaceX would be with their super-heavy launch vehicle that really launches the Starship.

That’s a fair distinction to make.

SJ: Yeah. Orion is ready to fly for the first crewed mission and it’s actually been handed over to the team at Kennedy Space Center that’s going to integrate it onto the SLS launch vehicle. And once we get the testing behind us, we’ll either decide to do another hot-fire test or go straight to Kennedy. The SLS will be at the Kennedy Space Center for integration either in late February or late March, depending on whether we decide to repeat the hot-fire test or not.

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Is China’s push to get astronauts onto the Moon and to launch its own space station a source of concern or pressure within NASA?

SJ: I wouldn’t say it’s a source of concern or pressure, but we are watching closely what the Chinese are doing. And, you know we have been prohibited by Congress from bilateral discussions with China. And so that gives us somewhat less insight into their plan and definitely keeps us from direct collaboration with them. But yeah, there’s no doubt that China has a very ambitious plan for human spaceflight, including Earth-orbiting space stations, and they’ve obviously done robotic missions to the Moon, and they have plans for the longer term for human spaceflight. And they have a robotic mission that’s headed to Mars orbit in early February.

Right around the same time as NASA, yeah.

SJ: I mean, we keep an eye on what the Chinese are doing. But it hasn’t really driven, directly, our strategy or our planning to date. That may change depending on the administration and what their policy is towards China and how they may or may not want more civil space cooperation between NASA and the Chinese space agency. But that’s too early to tell. That’s to be determined.

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It’s very interesting because we’re actually the only country that successfully landed something on Mars. So if China was successful after getting into orbit and landing later on this year, they would be the second country to do it.

So everyone I know would disown me if I didn’t ask. Aliens — coming soon?

SJ: [Laughter] You know, it’s, uh, hard to say. But you know, part of the Mars mission is looking for past signs of life, and we’re detecting planets around other stars, right? With Kepler and eventually with the James Webb Space Telescope and other missions, we want to do direct imaging of exoplanets, planets around other stars. So we’re advancing our knowledge there. But so far, no aliens.


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