NASA's boss on space renaissance, NZ's rockets, and aliens

1News spoke to NASA administrator Bill Nelson and deputy administrator Pamela Melroy after they arrived in Aotearoa on Monday.

Here's the conversation as it happened. The pair's answers have been edited for conciseness.

What brings you to New Zealand?

Bill Nelson: New Zealand is our partner in so many things and is increasingly our partner in our space programme.

You spoke earlier about how we are in a "golden age of space exploration", but it's also fair to say we're in a state of global volatility right now; how does NASA navigate that?

Bill Nelson: That's the point; we go back to the moon and on to Mars with our international partners. Space unites us.

We can bring nations of the world together not only to help our economies here on earth but to develop the technologies to explore the heavens.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and deputy Administrator, Pamela Melroy.

Where do you see New Zealand's place in this?

Bill Nelson: New Zealand is already a partner. We've got a spacecraft in orbit around the moon to characterise the orbit that our mini-station called gateway will be — that scientific instrument was launched by a New Zealand rocket — Rocket Lab.

New Zealand is very much a partner of ours already.

You've both been in the space game for some time now; how has it developed and changed over the decades?

Pamela Melroy: It is extraordinary, and NASA is very proud of our role in developing a space economy.

For many, many decades, the only spacefaring activities were by governments, and our investments in the United States into companies such as Rocket Lab and SpaceX and other companies have really led to a renaissance and growth in commercial capabilities.

Essentially these companies are taking the technologies that we developed and are making them more commercial and more efficient.

That's great for us because it allows us to do the things that we do at a lower cost, but it also provides more access and innovation.

Pamela Melroy.

I get the sense that both of you are environmentalists at heart as well; what concerns do you have about what is happening on our planet right now?

Bill Nelson: The planet is heating up, and we are seeing it on a daily basis, the more intense ferocious, the incredible rainfall we are seeing in California right now.

The heat that is rising. As a result, being absorbed by the ocean causes the ocean to rise. If we don’t reverse the heating of the earth, it's going to have devasting effects all over the globe.

Pamela Melroy: And our hearts go out to those affected by Cyclone Gabrielle, and the impacts here felt from this extreme weather event.

Bill Nelson.

Final question, you spoke about the 'cosmic sea' earlier. In 100 years, what will that cosmic sea look like and what will space exploration look like?

Bill Nelson: We will be beyond our solar system. We will have explored this both robotically and with humans in this solar system, and we will venture further out into our galaxy, the Milky Way. The time distance is so vast in this universe that we have now looked back to the beginning of time, 13.5 billion years ago.

There is going to have to be the development of extraordinary new technologies to get us fast enough to get us out of our galaxy.

Our galaxy has billions of stars.

But there are billions of other galaxies with billions of stars. So, there's a vastness out there that is hard for me to comprehend. But it's there, and it needs to be explored.

Finally, I'll say I asked some of our NASA scientists — what is the probability of life out in the universe. What is the probability there is another medium size sun or star with planets orbiting about it that would be a medium-sized planet that would have carbon and other elements that would create a habitable, liveable atmosphere?

This was their answer — two trillion such worlds. That's quite a large mathematical answer for the probability that there might be life out there.