October 20, 2021 By Whitelaw Reid, wdr4d@virginia.edu

Nelson Headshot

Space Jam: Former Senator Talks Aliens, Asteroids and ‘Star Trek’ With Larry Sabato

Former Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, named in May to lead NASA, took part in a wide-ranging discussion on the politics of space with professor Larry Sabato on Tuesday.

Maybe what Harry Stamper was doing up on that rock wasn’t so farfetched after all?

On Tuesday afternoon, former Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson – a University of Virginia School of Law alumnus whom President Biden chose in May to lead NASA – had an audience’s rapt attention as he discussed a current NASA mission that sounds vaguely similar to what Stamper, the Bruce Willis character in the 1998 film, “Armageddon,” was attempting.

In a livestream chat hosted by politics professor Larry Sabato, director of UVA’s Center for Politics, Nelson talked about NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test, which is currently taking place millions of miles from Earth.

While it is not yet possible to land on an asteroid the way Willis’ character did, Nelson said DART’s goal is similar to the one in the film, in that NASA is also trying to redirect an asteroid.

NASA’s project entails orchestrating a collision between a space probe and an asteroid.

“Way, way out there, we’re going to intercept this asteroid and DART is going to hit it at 15,000 miles an hour [and] we’re going to see if we can, ever so slightly, can move its trajectory,” Nelson explained. “And then then we’re going to watch its trajectory and see, ‘Did we move it?’”

To be clear: The asteroid NASA is trying to deflect isn’t the size of Texas (like in the movie) or on a collision course for Earth.

Related Story

That’s not to say it could never happen, though, Nelson said.

“If we discover in the next century that an asteroid is inbound for Earth – an asteroid that would not only blow up Earth or change it like an asteroid did when the dinosaurs lived and wiped out the dinosaurs … [DART] is the way of avoiding that catastrophe,” Nelson said. “That’s all going on right now.”

Nelson’s comments were part of a wide-ranging discussion on the politics of space that included a question-and-answer session with UVA students.

Nelson addressed, among many topics, space relations with China; the timetable for landing on Mars; partisanship as it relates to space; future affordability of space travel; and possible medical and scientific benefits that might be found in space.

Nelson, who in 1986 flew on the 24th space shuttle flight, also addressed criticism of spending on space instead of addressing problems on Earth. “My critics would like me to take a space flight again – they’d like me to go to Mars on a one-way trip,” he said, smiling.

Nelson said that one of the main objectives of trying to get to Mars and other planets is the search for extraterrestrial life.

Students asked Nelson about the mysterious sightings from pilots that have been the subject of news reports, including one from “60 Minutes.”

Your gift. Our impact. Give through the Commonwealth of Virginia Campaign.

“I’ve talked to those pilots and they know they saw something, and their radars locked on to it,” Nelson said. “And they don’t know what is. And we don’t know what it is. We hope it’s not an adversary here on Earth that has that kind of technology. But it’s something. And so this is a mission that we’re constantly looking, ‘Who is out there?’ Who are we?’ How did we get here? How did we become as we are? How did we develop? How did we civilize? And are those same conditions out there in a universe that has billions of other suns and billions of other galaxies?’ It’s so large I can’t conceive it.

“Now there are even theories that there might be other universes,” Nelson added. “And if that’s the case, who am I to say planet Earth is the only location of a life form that is civilized and organized like ours?”

Of course, no space discussion would be complete without touching on a hot-button topic: Nelson was asked by a student if he preferred “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.”

“I like them both,” said Nelson, smiling.

Nelson said both productions came along at the perfect time, just as the country was really excited about space.

“If you think back to the original ‘Star Trek,’ that was a very diverse crew,” Nelson said. “They had Lt. [Nyota] Uhura, an African American, and the actress Nichelle Nichols, and they had an Asian American that was part of that crew.

“That was role-modeling way back even before Apollo. Now we’re bringing all that into reality with the Artemis generation,” added Nelson, alluding to NASA’s initiative to put the first woman on the moon, along with the next man, by 2024.

The hourlong interview can be seen in its entirety here.

Media Contact

Whitelaw Reid

Manager of Strategic Communications University of Virginia Licensing & Ventures Group