Biden Picks Bill Nelson as Next NASA Administrator

Biden Picks Bill Nelson as Next NASA Administrator

President Biden made it official today, announcing his intent to nominate former Democratic Florida Senator Bill Nelson to be the next NASA Administrator. The action had been rumored for weeks. Nelson is a career politician who served in both the House and the Senate. While a member of the House science committee, he flew as a payload specialist on a 1986 space shuttle mission. Nelson has many admirers for his steadfast support for NASA, but critics worry he is wedded to old ways of doing business and will take NASA backwards.

NASA Administrator nominee Bill Nelson.

Nelson, 78, developed a strong reputation for bipartisanship during his long service in the House (1979-1991) and Senate (2001-2019).  Two recent space policy examples are the agreement he reached with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and others on the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and brokering a compromise with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in 2016 on ending U.S. reliance on Russian RD-181 rocket engines for national security launches that pitted McCain against Republicans as well as Democrats.

Not everyone agrees with the outcomes, but Nelson’s ability to reach across the aisle and find a path forward is likely to serve NASA well. He also is a friend of Biden’s. They served together in the Senate for 8 years, which should gain him access when he needs it to promote NASA’s requirements.

His nomination does leave an almost palpable sense of disappointment among many in the space community, however, who hoped the Biden Administration would at long last break the glass ceiling at NASA and appoint a woman. Former astronaut Pam Melroy was one of the women often mentioned for that job. Rumors are she will be nominated to be Deputy Administrator. Three woman have served in that role already:  Shana Dale in George W. Bush’s second term, and Lori Garver and Dava Newman in the Obama Administration.

Nonetheless, the nomination was met with praise by congressional and industry leaders today.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA and will consider the nomination, called him “one of NASA’s strongest and most passionate advocates” who has the “expertise and the political acumen” to maintain U.S. leadership in space. Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Don Beyer (D-VA), chairs of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its space subcommittee, also applauded the choice.

Companies and industry associations ranging from established to entrepreneurial also expressed support through statements or tweets, including the Aerospace Industries Association, the United Launch Alliance, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Axiom Space, and many more.

Jim Bridenstine, who stepped down as head of NASA on January 20 at the end of the Trump Administration, also cheered the selection.

“Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA Administrator.  He has the political clout to work with President Biden’s Office of Management and Budget, National Security Council, Office of Science and Technology Policy, and bipartisan Members of the House and Senate.  He has the diplomatic skills to lead an international coalition sustainably to the Moon and on to Mars.  Bill Nelson will have the influence to deliver strong budgets for NASA and, when necessary, he will be able to enlist the help of his friend, President Joe Biden.  The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay.” — Jim Bridenstine

The statement is somewhat remarkable considering that Nelson stridently opposed Bridenstine’s nomination. Nelson was the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee at the time and united Democrats on the committee and in the full Senate against him. Nelson’s fellow Senator from Florida, Republican Marco Rubio, also opposed Bridenstine at first.  He and Nelson insisted NASA should not be led by a politician. Bridenstine was a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma. The dispute delayed confirmation of a new administrator. By April 2018, 15 months into the Trump Administration, Rubio decided it was more important to get someone into the job and relented. Bridenstine was confirmed on a party line 50-49 vote.

Nelson and Rubio clearly have changed their minds about having a politician in charge.  Reacting to rumors yesterday that Nelson’s nomination was imminent, Rubio tweeted his support.

Bridenstine proved to be a very effective and popular NASA Administrator.  He and Nelson patched things up and Bridenstine even appointed Nelson to the NASA Advisory Council after Nelson lost his reelection bid in 2018.

The nomination is not without critics, many of whom cite Nelson’s previous opposition to a politician leading the agency and see his acceptance of the nomination as hypocritical. Also, at 78, Nelson is the antithesis of Bridenstine who championed the “Artemis generation” of people like himself who were not yet born when the Apollo landings took place. His consistent message was that this is the time for a new generation to take the lead and, through NASA’s Artemis program, at last get astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars.

Nelson’s support for human spaceflight is unquestioned, but there is concern that instead of the public-private partnership model embraced by Bridenstine, NASA will turn back to the traditional procurement approach of cost-plus contracts with big aerospace companies resulting in delays and higher costs.

Nelson’s attitude toward the current era of commercial space — “new space” versus “old space” — is the crux of concern by some in the “new space” community about how he will lead NASA. It stems in large part from his role in writing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed NASA to build the Saturn V-class Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.  SLS just passed a major milestone yesterday, but is years later and over budget. Boeing is the prime contractor. Meanwhile, companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have been developing their own big rockets that will cost significantly less per launch.

The law came about after the Obama Administration decided to terminate the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program through which NASA was developing a Saturn V-class rocket, Ares V, and a crew spacecraft, Orion, to take astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars. Bush also directed that the space shuttle program be terminated as soon as construction of the International Space Station was completed (then expected in 2010) both to free up money to execute Constellation and because of safety concerns in the wake of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

Shortly after taking office, the Obama Administration decided Constellation was too expensive to continue during the economic turmoil following the collapse of the housing market and global financial meltdown.  In February 2010, he sent his FY2011 budget request to Congress proposing dramatic changes to the human spaceflight program. Basically NASA would get out of the business of building human space transportation systems and turn it over to the private sector, with NASA purchasing services instead of owning the systems — what became known as “commercial crew.”  It built on the Bush Administration’s commercial cargo program, which had not yet proved itself, and the idea of putting companies like SpaceX in charge of human spaceflight was a bridge too far for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. In addition, Obama was punting on whether or when astronauts would ever go to the Moon or Mars. He proposed only investments in new propulsion technologies before making such decisions.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans vigorously opposed the proposal. It was not just the lack of a long-term goal to maintain U.S. leadership in human spaceflight, or even the provocative notion of turning human spaceflight over to the private sector. There was the near-term issue of the fate of the U.S. industrial base that supported the soon-to-end space shuttle program.  Space shuttle workers, many of them in Florida, who had expected to transfer to the Constellation program now would lose their jobs. The solid rocket booster industry could be imperiled with nothing to replace the space shuttle and only DOD as a customer.

Two months after sending the budget to Congress, Obama tried to tamp down criticism by making a speech in Florida, at Kennedy Space Center. He set out a long-term plan — send humans to orbit (not land on) Mars in the 2030s using an asteroid mission as a stepping stone — but eschewed a return to the lunar surface as an unnecessary “been there, done that” exercise. The speech did little to mollify NASA’s congressional supporters, including Nelson.

It was against that backdrop that the 2010 NASA authorization act was crafted. The compromise basically was to do both what Obama wanted and what Congress wanted.  Yes, commercial crew could proceed, but NASA still would have to build a new big rocket — SLS instead of Ares V — with a crew spacecraft (Orion was retained) to take astronauts somewhere beyond low Earth orbit.

The relationship between the Obama Administration and Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, never really recovered, with ongoing spats about whether Obama budget requests favored commercial crew over SLS/Orion and Congress insisting SLS/Orion was a higher priority.

STS 61-C crew (L-R): Robert Cenker (payload specialist, RCA Astro-Electronics), Charlie Bolden (NASA), Bill Nelson (payload specialist, U.S. Congress), Steve Hawley (NASA), George “Pinky” Nelson (NASA), Robert “Hoot” Gibson (NASA), Franklin Chang-Diaz (NASA). Credit: NASA

Charlie Bolden was NASA Administrator during the Obama Administration. He and Nelson have been close friends since that 1986 space shuttle mission, STS 61-C, where Nelson gained his astronaut wings. Bolden was the pilot of that mission.

Nelson got a chance to fly on shuttle because he was the Democratic chairman of a House subcommittee that oversees NASA. The agency had already agreed to fly Sen. Jake Garn (R-UT), the Republican chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, so now someone from the other party and the other side of Capitol Hill could go. (Garn flew on STS 51-D in 1985). Nelson’s STS 61-C landed just 10 days before the fatal space shuttle Challenger tragedy that killed all seven crew members, including Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe, and reshaped NASA’s attitude towards flying non-professional astronauts for many years.

Former NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr.. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In an interview yesterday, Bolden told that it is correct that Nelson did not push for commercial crew in those early years, but pointed out that he could not find anyone on Capitol Hill to fight for it. Only after Boeing decided to compete for one of the commercial crew contracts did support materialize.  And while Nelson was not out in front leading a charge for commercial crew, he was not an opponent either, struggling to get money for it, Bolden added.

Nelson was not a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee that provides money for NASA programs, only for NASA’s authorization committee, Senate Commerce, that sets policy.

Bolden said “no one is more disappointed than me” that a woman was not nominated. He proposed three names to the Biden team himself, all women (including Pam Melroy) and said Nelson did as well, but when the call came from the President, it was for Nelson to serve.

He expects Nelson will fight for human spaceflight, science, technology (especially nuclear propulsion), as well as commercial space. “I think he will strongly support the further facilitation of the success of commercial space, which means commercial platforms, commercial destinations in LEO, not just commercial launch vehicles.”

Others close to Nelson also reject the narrative that he is against commercial space pointing to a record of support dating back to the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act and its 1988 amendments through to the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act and the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.

Only time will tell where Nelson puts his priorities. He may well be asked about that as part of his confirmation process.  He is expected to easily win approval from his former Senate colleagues, but that does not mean they will not try to get him on the record on these issues.

The White House statement this morning was about Biden’s “intent to nominate” Nelson, a precursor to the actual nomination. When that is sent to Congress and when a hearing and committee and floor votes can be scheduled are all unknowns. This is just a first step.

Coming just two months into Biden’s presidency, it is one of the earliest NASA administrator nominations in recent memory. The space community is eager to see if Biden’s unbridled enthusiasm for the Mars Perseverance rover and the entire Mars Sample Return campaign flows over to other NASA endeavors including the Artemis program. That will become more evident when the FY2022 budget request is submitted to Congress.  Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk told earlier this week that may not happen until May.  It is possible Nelson could be in the job by then and lead the charge to advance Biden’s space agenda, whatever it is.

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