Nelson Nomination for NASA Administrator Clears Committee

Nelson Nomination for NASA Administrator Clears Committee

A Senate committee approved Bill Nelson’s nomination to be NASA Administrator this morning, clearing it for action by the full Senate. A former Senator, Nelson received only accolades from both Democrats and Republicans during his nomination hearing last week, making today’s outcome all but assured.  Once confirmed, he will have a lot on his to-do list.

Bill Nelson, nominee for NASA Administrator, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, April 21, 2021. Screengrab.

Nelson was approved by voice vote with no opposition during a meeting of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) filled in for committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) at the markup.  She and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) again praised Nelson during their opening remarks. No other Senators spoke on the nomination today, but many expressed their delight at the prospect of Nelson leading NASA during his April 21 confirmation hearing.

The nomination now must be voted on by the full Senate. With no apparent opposition, the vote could come quickly, though it is extremely difficult to estimate when the Senate will act on anything. It is conceivable they could try to do it before the Senate’s upcoming week-long recess, but that would be unusually fast.

A lot of work is waiting for Nelson, starting with the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon.

Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk told the Space Transportation Association yesterday that the agency’s internal review of the Artemis schedule should be completed in a couple of weeks, but then must be presented to Nelson and Pam Melroy once she is confirmed as Deputy Administrator.

Jurczyk continues to hold out hope that the uncrewed test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, Artemis I, could take place this year.  Many are skeptical. The SLS core stage just arrived at Kennedy Space Center yesterday from Stennis Space Center, MS where it underwent a series of “Green Run” tests. It is months late because the final Hot Fire test had to be repeated.

Now it must be integrated with the other parts of SLS, including two Solid Rocket Boosters and an upper stage, and the Orion spacecraft. More tests await.

Jurczyk acknowledged there is a lot to do. While praising how well the NASA and industry teams are working together, this is a “first time flow” that “will undoubtedly encounter challenges” and “we don’t have a lot of schedule reserve.”  But still, “we’ve got a shot” at launching by the end of the calendar year.

Artemis II, the crewed SLS/Orion test flight, is planned for 2023.

The ongoing internal review is about the schedule for flights after that. Right now, Artemis III will be the mission to put astronauts back on the lunar surface in 2024, a date set by the Trump Administration and widely panned as not credible for technical and budgetary reasons.

In addition to SLS and Orion, NASA is building a small space station, Gateway, in lunar orbit where crews will transfer between Orion and the Human Landing System (HLS) that will take them down to and back from the surface.

Gateway just passed its Key Decision Point-0 (KDP-0) last week, allowing it to proceed into Preliminary Design Review.

NASA awarded a contract to SpaceX to build HLS on April 16, but Blue Origin and Dynetics, the other two competitors, are protesting the award.

Jurczyk said he did not know what impact the protests will have on the HLS schedule.  “It’s to be determined whether that’s going to delay moving forward or if we can keep things moving forward. We’re working through that right now.”

On top of all that are budget challenges. President Biden is requesting a 6.3 percent increase for NASA for FY2022, but only $325 million of that increase is for Artemis, raising its budget to $6.9 billion. That is far less than the Trump Administration projected would be needed to meet the 2024 deadline.

The Biden Administration supports Artemis, but its top priority is climate change research, another NASA specialty.  The budget request asks for $2.3 billion for Earth science, a $250 million increase over FY2021. Increases for aeronautics, space technology, and STEM education also are in the request.

Nelson will have to sort out the agency’s priorities and come up with a plan that will win support in Congress. As a former member of the House (1979-1991) and Senate (2001-2019) he knows Capitol Hill better than almost anyone, but that may not make the task any easier in an era of record-setting deficits due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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