Nelson Concedes, Senate Will Lose Key NASA Supporter

Nelson Concedes, Senate Will Lose Key NASA Supporter

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) conceded to Governor Rick Scott this afternoon in the hotly contested Florida Senate race.  When Nelson leaves the Senate at the end of the 115th Congress, it will lose one of NASA’s strongest supporters.  Coupled with the loss of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) in the House, the agency will be facing a new congressional landscape next year.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)

Nelson’s considerable influence on Senate space legislation is based both on his seniority — he is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA — and his stature as the only serving Senator who has himself flown in space.

As a Congressman, Nelson flew on the space shuttle in January 1986, the flight just before the Challenger tragedy.

During his years in the Senate, he has had a marked influence on NASA.  He and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) were largely responsible for crafting Congress’s response to President Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation program, which rankled both Democrats and Republicans.

While Obama succeeded in terminating the mid-sized Ares I and big Ares 5 rockets being built for Constellation, the 2010 NASA Authorization Act directed NASA to build a new big rocket anyway — the Space Launch System (SLS).  It also directed NASA to build a Multi-Purpose Crew Spacecraft (MPCV) to go with SLS and NASA decided to keep the Orion spacecraft already under development for Constellation. While Bush’s goal of returning humans to the lunar surface by 2020 gave way to Obama’s focus on humans orbiting Mars in the 2030s, Nelson and Hutchison ensured that the major transportation elements needed to enable sending astronauts to either destination continued — and as NASA programs. That remains controversial since some think the private sector can build rockets better than the government, but it was a favorable outcome for NASA.

Obama did achieve his goal of transitioning the development of new crew transportation systems to low Earth orbit (LEO) from NASA to public-private partnerships — the commercial crew program underway today — but Nelson and Hutchison battled with his administration to ensure adequate attention and resources were allocated to SLS versus commercial crew.

More recently, Nelson has been in the forefront of efforts to keep the International Space Station (ISS) funded past the Trump Administration’s deadline of 2025 for ending direct government financial support.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, and Nelson have legislation right now that includes a provision to continue government funding of ISS until 2030.  With Nelson’s departure imminent, they may try to finalize something before the end of the year that incorporates that and perhaps other elements of pending House and Senate space bills that address both NASA and a range of commercial space issues.

Florida is home to Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, so any Florida Senator is likely to fight for those interests, but it is not clear how strongly Scott feels about these issues compared to others that face the state.  Florida’s other Senator, Marco Rubio (R), has not made space one of his major issues although he was the key vote to confirm Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator.  Nelson and Rubio both opposed Bridenstine initially, and Nelson kept all 49 Senate Democrats in the “no” column.  Rubio eventually changed his mind and voted yes, making the vote 50-49 in Bridenstine’s favor.

Senator-elect Rick Scott (R-FL).

Whether Rubio or Scott will step up to fill Nelson’s pro-NASA shoes for Florida remains to be seen.  Scott visited the Space Coast during his campaign blaming Nelson for not protecting the area “from the economic hardship of Obama’s NASA cuts” and taking credit for adding 25,000 new jobs there as Governor.

NASA surely will continue to have advocates in the Senate. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is another strong supporter, at least of efforts centered at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.  Cruz is a champion of NASA human spaceflight activities — Johnson Space Center is in his state — and of commercial space and U.S. leadership in space overall. Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who replaced Sen. Barbara Mikulski and won a spot on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, fights for activities at Goddard Space Flight Center, especially space and Earth sciences.

Nelson’s departure is still a significant loss for the agency.  At the same time, Culberson, an ardent advocate for planetary science, especially missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa, lost his reelection bid.  He chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, a key funding position.  The House will be under Democratic control next year, so he would have lost his chairmanship in any case, but his personal commitment to Europa and space science could have continued even if he was in the minority. Who, if anyone, will become the new cheerleader for planetary science with an equivalent powerful position in the House remains to be seen.  Rep. Jóse Serrano (D-NY), currently CJS Ranking Member, could become the new CJS chair and he seems quite supportive of NASA, but how the agency would rank on his priority list against other activities funded by that subcommittee is the multi-billion dollar question.

Several weeks remain in the 115th Congress where Nelson and Culberson can try to finish some of the work they have started.  On the authorization front, the Senate has one bill and the House has three that address a range of NASA and commercial space issues.   On appropriations, the CJS bill has not yet been brought to the House or Senate floor for debate and is likely to be combined with other pending appropriations bills.  The goal is to pass them before December 7 when the Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding NASA and many other agencies expires.  Substantial hurdles remain, not the least of which is funding for President Trump’s border wall that likely will be in the same appropriations bundle, however.

As for Nelson, in a video announcement this afternoon he focused not on his defeat, but on the work ahead.  Space is among the causes he intends to keep fighting for:

“As a country, we need to continue to launch rockets and explore the heavens.

“I have seen the blue brilliance of the earth from the edge of the heavens.  And I will fight on to save this planet, our homes and our cities, from the spreading plague of the greenhouse gases that infect our atmosphere, and play havoc with our weather, and risks the planet our children and grandchildren will inherit.” — Sen. Bill Nelson

Rubio paid tribute to Nelson in a tweet.

Only one Senate race remains undetermined now — Mississippi.   A run-off election will be held on November 27 between Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith (R), who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Thad Cochran in April, and Mike Espy (D).  A candidate must receive 50 percent of the vote to win in Mississippi and neither did.  Hyde-White got 41.5 percent, while Espy got 40.6 percent.

At the moment, next year the Senate will have 52 Republicans and 47 Democrats (including two Independents who caucus with the Democrats).

This article has been updated with the tweet from Sen. Rubio.

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