Nelson Greeted With Accolades at Nomination Hearing

Nelson Greeted With Accolades at Nomination Hearing

Former Senator Bill Nelson received only accolades at his confirmation hearing today to be NASA’s next administrator. The career politician who served three terms in the Senate was welcomed as an old friend by Republicans and Democrats alike. No dissent was heard. In short, it was a lovefest.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) opened the hearing with a warm welcome to “my friend” Bill Nelson, calling him “a leader in space policy” and “integral driver of NASA strategic direction for decades.”

Former Senator Bill Nelson, Biden nominee for NASA Administrator, testifies at his Senate confirmation hearing, April 21, 2021. Screengrab.

Nelson, 78, is a fervent advocate for human spaceflight, but gained a reputation for bipartisanship on many issues during his 18 years in the Senate (2001-2019) representing Florida, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and Patrick Space Force Base.

Previously (1979-1991) he served in the House and chaired a space subcommittee of what is now the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. In that capacity, he flew aboard space shuttle mission STS 61-C, which landed just 10 days before the fatal Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy in January 1986.

In the space community, his nomination was met with some disappointment since many hoped that at long last a woman would get the job and, at 78, he is more representative of NASA’s past than its future. But for eight years (2001-2009) Nelson served in the Senate alongside Joe Biden. Now President, Biden nominated him to be the next NASA administrator last month. A close relationship with the President is almost always beneficial to any Executive Branch agency head.

At today’s hearing he was praised as the perfect candidate to lead NASA by Senators of all political persuasions, even Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) who defeated him in a closely fought race in 2018.

A number of questions focused on the Artemis program to return American astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars. Several Senators expressed support for retaining the 2024 goal of returning to the Moon set by the Trump Administration in 2019. The date is viewed with skepticism throughout the space community for technical and budgetary reasons, but Nelson did not dissuade them.  Stressing he does not have inside knowledge of NASA’s planning since he is not yet confirmed, he pointed to NASA’s announcement on Friday that SpaceX won the contract to build the Human Landing System (HLS) for that first lunar return where Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said the agency “may have a shot” at 2024 if SpaceX meets its milestones.

That timetable is “ambitious,” Nelson acknowledged, but “I think you may be pleased that we’re” going to try to adhere to it.

Curiously, two Republican Senators thought NASA has a goal of putting people on Mars by 2029 or 2030. The agency has never made such a statement. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) routinely displays a “Mars 2033” bumper sticker, but even that is considered aspirational by most in the space community. Nelson simply said the goal is the decade of the 2030s.

Friday’s HLS award to SpaceX caught Cantwell’s attention. NASA had insisted it wanted to choose two contractors to ensure “dissimilar redundancy” so if one company failed, another would be available to keep the project on track. In the end, however, NASA said it did not have sufficient funding to award two contracts. For FY2021, Congress appropriated only 25 percent of the funding NASA requested for HLS. However, it pointed out that this contract is only for the first landing. NASA is planning a sustainable program of lunar exploration over many years and another competition will be held for subsequent missions.

One of the other two companies competing for HLS is Blue Origin, headquartered in Cantwell’s state of Washington.  It leads a “National Team” that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper.

At today’s hearing, Cantwell repeatedly stressed that dissimilar redundancy is needed and needed right now, not sometime in the future. She got Nelson to commit to sharing a plan with Congress quickly “for assuring that kind of resiliency.” Nelson replied “competition is always good.”

HLS will be acquired through a Public-Private Partnership similar to NASA’s “commercial cargo” and “commercial crew” systems where the government and the company pay for development, but the company retains ownership and can offer services to many customers, not just NASA.

One criticism of Nelson’s nomination is that he resisted these commercial programs as a Senator in favor of traditional government-owned systems procured through cost-plus contracts.  The issue came to a head in 2010 when President Obama decide to cancel the Bush Administration’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the Moon and turn development of new human spaceflight systems for the International Space Station (ISS) over to the private sector. That commercial crew program resulted in SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, about to launch a third crew to the ISS this week, and Boeing’s Starliner, still in testing.

The proposal provoked intense backlash from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Nelson worked with then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to find a compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. It allowed NASA to proceed with commercial crew, but also required the agency to continue with a variant of Constellation, building the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft through traditional contracts.

Nelson opponents portray the 2010 law as an example of his opposition to commercial spaceflight, while supporters point out that it approved commercial crew. Hutchison participated in today’s hearing virtually, introducing Nelson and emphasizing how they worked together to create a dual path of commercial and government missions.  Nelson praised the commercial cargo and crew programs and said there were more like them to come, including HLS.  “I think you’ll see this dual activity continue as set by law.”

NASA’s earth science research was another focus.  Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), who chairs the Space and Science subcommittee, has a master’s degree in earth and environmental research and asked how NASA would use the $2.3 billion requested by the Biden Administration for FY2022. It is an increase of $300 million over FY2021. Nelson replied that climate change cannot be mitigated if it cannot be measured, and that is NASA’s expertise.

Competition with China, and the Wolf amendment that restricts NASA cooperation with China, also came up.  Nelson agreed with Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) that China’s recently announced plans to work with Russia on lunar exploration is a cause for concern. He also assured Scott that NASA will heed the Wolf Amendment that restricts NASA cooperation with China. “That is the law and NASA will abide by that.”

Congress has a long-held interest in NASA’s STEM education activities to inspire students to study science, technology, engineering and math. The Trump Administration tried to eliminate NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement every year it was in office and every year Congress restored it. Among those praising NASA’s STEM program today was Sen. John Thune (R-SD) after sharing a fun moment from several years ago when he and Nelson visited the Florida Everglades and had some personal time with a python.

Sen. John Thune (R-SD), left, and then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), far right, holding a python. Screengrab.

Thune holds the third highest position in the Republican leadership (Minority Whip) in the Senate. Nelson agreed with him on the benefits of NASA’s STEM program and promised to “pour the juice” into it if confirmed.  There’s “nothing like space that can get kids excited.”

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