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CNN "The Situation Room" - Transcript: Space Program


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KEILAR: Two American astronauts spent much of their Christmas Eve outside the international space station, carrying out emergency repairs. This was a risky seven-and-a-half hour space walk. They replaced a vital part of the cooling system.

And joining me now is Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida. Back in 1986, when he was a congressman, he actually trained as an astronaut, spent six days in space aboard the shuttle Columbia. So, Senator Nelson, you are certainly familiar with some of the work that was done today. How dangerous is a repair like this?

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), FLORIDA: I'll tell you, I was riveted to an iPad watching this realtime. And each time that they would take that grappling hook on the tether and move it to another place, you would hope that it would catch because if the two that connected them suddenly detached, they would float off in space. And so just that in itself is an extremely risky maneuver.

KEILAR: That just makes you realize how scary it is. And they're doing this on Christmas Eve, obviously. This is how they're spending their Christmas Eve, something that needs to be done because this system cools vital parts of the space station.

But this makes us also think about the space program in general in the U.S. What do you think about the state of the space program? Funding has been cut. Are we looking at sort of an aging program?

NELSON: We really have it up and running now. Most people think with the shutdown of the space shuttle that the program will shut down. Well, you saw today, there are exciting things going on, and when you put the human in the loop so that the human is actually doing things like they did today, no robot could do all of that. And now we are building new rockets, we are building the rockets to take us to and from the space station. But we are also building the monster rocket that will take us beyond low earth orbit as we go out and explore the heavens and eventually in the time of 2030s, we'll go to Mars.

KEILAR: In the wake of the space shuttle program being shuttered, Senator, I know there were -- I guess some jobs that were shed certainly in your state. What are you hearing from people in your state, from people involved in the space program, about the state of things?

NELSON: People are excited. Engineers have hands-on flight hardware. We're getting ready next year to do a test flight of the new space capsule called Orion. So they are actually assembling a space craft right there at the Kennedy Space Center. So people's attitude has turned around and looking to the future.

In the meantime, you are seeing these commercial rockets that are delivering cargo to the station. They have been tremendously successful and now they are going through and putting in all of the redundancies and escape systems so that we can fly humans safely on those rockets to the station.

KEILAR: You know, part of when you look at the space program, in a way it's been about competition with other nations. It's a symbol of innovation and who is leading in science. China just had a moon landing. Do you think that Americans should be concerned about this? Is this a possibility that they could be surpassing us here in the not too distant future?

NELSON: Well, when we're dealing with China, we better be concerned. But put this in context. Remember, it's over four decades ago that we landed on the moon. And we landed with humans on the moon. China has just put an unmanned spacecraft on the moon.

But you better look out for the future, and I think our mission to Mars will be an international mission. Now, whether or not that will include the Chinese is another matter. But a lot of that has to do with the international politics that will play out over the next couple of decades.

KEILAR: One final question. On a completely different subject while I have you here, Senator Nelson, because you are a Democrat, and Obamacare has been a huge story lately. You've heard about this surge in sign-ups. The Obama administration isn't going to hit its mark, but certainly they have seen some progress here in terms of enrollments. What do you think about whether the administration can sort of make up the losses that it's had in time for it to really make a difference in the midterm elections in 2014?

NELSON: It will. The Affordable Care Act will be a success. You will see between now and the deadline, March 31st, you will see a lot of people sign up. You know, the computer glitches were inexcusable, but that's done. Now looking to the future, people are going to see that they can get affordable health insurance, and you'll see the public respond.

KEILAR: All right. Senator Bill Nelson, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.

NELSON: Merry Christmas, Brianna.

KEILAR: You, too. Merry Christmas.

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