Nelson Confirmation Hearing Set for April 21

Nelson Confirmation Hearing Set for April 21

A Senate committee will take up President Biden’s nomination of former Senator Bill Nelson to be NASA Administrator next week. It is another step along the path to confirmation, which Nelson is expected to win, but his opposition to another politician taking the job in 2018 could prompt some pushback during the hearing.

Bill Nelson, nominee for NASA Administrator.

Nelson served three terms in the Senate that ended when he lost his final bid for reelection in 2018. During that time, along with 12 years in the House (1979-1991), he gained a reputation for bipartisanship along with his passion for human spaceflight. In January 1986, while a Congressman from Florida, he flew on a space shuttle mission, STS 61-C.

Biden nominated him to be NASA Administrator on March 19. The choice was disappointing to many who hoped that this time a woman would get the job. Biden is expected to nominate former astronaut Pam Melroy to be Deputy Administrator, perhaps tomorrow.  She would be the fourth woman to serve in that role.

At 78, Nelson also is viewed as representative of NASA’s past more than its future, with a preference for cost-plus contracts to big aerospace companies rather than the Public-Private Partnerships NASA increasingly has embraced over the past decade. Lori Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator during President Obama’s first term, sharply criticized Nelson in a recent op-ed for perpetuating “a system that rewards legislators whose states and districts have existing space facilities and jobs to protect” and urged that NASA “break from the parochial and patriarchal systems of the past.”

Nelson does have many supporters, however, including Charlie Bolden, who was NASA Administrator for all 8 years of the Obama presidency. Although he has said publicly that he also would have preferred a woman to finally get the top job, he defends Nelson as someone who will “strongly support the further facilitation of the success of commercial space,” and fight for human spaceflight, science, and technology. The two know each other well. Bolden is a former astronaut who was the pilot for STS 61-C.

Another positive note is that Nelson and Biden have a close friendship. The two served together in the Senate for 8 years (January 2001-January 2009) and Nelson worked on Biden’s presidential campaign in Florida. Direct access to the President could serve NASA well. Biden already has shown support for the agency in words and actions.

Nelson’s confirmation hearing will be before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, on which he served for many years including in 2018 when Jim Bridenstine, then a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, was the NASA Administrator nominee. Nelson was the top Democrat on the committee and led all Democrats in the Senate to oppose Bridenstine primarily because “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.” Bridenstine was confirmed on a party-line 50-49 vote.

Although Nelson has many friends in the Senate and is expected to be confirmed, some Republicans may use the hearing to highlight the incongruity between Nelson’s positions then and now. Nelson is a career politician, while Bridenstine was a former Navy pilot, a former space museum director, and in just his third term in the House. He also proved to be a very effective and popular NASA Administrator.

Only two Senators have publicly endorsed Nelson’s nomination so far: Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), who chairs the committee, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).  Rubio and Nelson represented Florida together from 2011-2019. Rubio joined Nelson in opposing Bridenstine initially, but ultimately voted to confirm him. Rubio is not a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, however, so will not be present to speak up for Nelson.

Significantly, though, Bridenstine himself has put the past behind him. He appointed Nelson to serve on the NASA Advisory Council in 2019 and in recent weeks has twice called on the Senate to quickly confirm him.

The hearing is on April 21, 2021 at 10:00 am ET and will be webcast on the committee’s website. The committee will also consider the nomination of Lina Khan to be a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission.

Ordinarily it would also air on NASA TV although the hearing is at exactly the same time as the “Countdown Clock” briefing the day before the launch of the next crew to the International Space Station. Two Americans, a Japanese and a European are scheduled to lift off at 6:11 am EDT on April 22 on SpaceX’s Crew-2 mission. Representatives of all three space agencies will hold a press conference at Kennedy Space Center, FL in front of the iconic Countdown Clock as it ticks down to launch.

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