Senator Bill Nelson to Face Rep. Connie Mack in November as Hutchison Retires

Senator Bill Nelson to Face Rep. Connie Mack in November as Hutchison Retires

The Senate will be losing one of its key NASA proponents at the end of the year with the retirement of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX).  The question is whether it will be losing another as Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) fights a tough race to retain his seat.

Florida held its primary this week and Rep. Connie Mack IV won the Republican nod to challenge Nelson, who is running for a third term in the Senate.   So far the battle is shaping up along national lines with debates over Medicare and Social Security getting top billing, not the space program, as important as it is to the State of the Florida.

Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle in 1986 as a payload specialist when he was a Member of the U.S. House of Representatives, is an avid supporter of NASA’s human spaceflight program and of NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, the pilot of that shuttle mission.   Nelson and Hutchison crafted the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that reached a compromise with the Obama Administration on building a Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle to send humans beyond low Earth orbit in addition to the Administration’s desire to rely on commercial companies for crew space transportation to and from the International Space Station (ISS).   Nelson and Hutchison also are fervent ISS supporters.

Although there are other Senators with a strong interest in NASA, notably Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Nelson-Hutchison team has been especially influential over the past three contentious years.    If Nelson wins his race, he will need a new partner in the Senate to support the vision for human spaceflight that he and Hutchison painted in the 2010 authorization bill.

Mack’s position on the space program is unclear.  He represents a district on the southwest Gulf Coast that includes Ft. Myers, far from Kennedy Space Center and the “space coast” on the Atlantic side of the State.  The list of issues on his website does not mention science or technology, much less space.  The son of former U.S. Senator Connie Mack III (R-FL — whom Nelson replaced after Mack retired), a former member of the Florida House of Representatives, a businessman, and the husband of Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), the only aspect of his official biography that may hint at what position he might take on the space program is that he “believes the private sector, and not the government, creates new jobs,” although that is a very generalized statement. 

Three NASA authorization bills have passed since he began serving in the House — in 2005, 2008 and 2010.

  • There was no recorded vote on the 2005 NASA authorization act.
  • The 2008 bill passed 409-15 and Mack was one of the 409 who voted aye (presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was one of the 15 who voted nay).
  • The 2010 bill passed 304-118 and Mack was one of the 118 who opposed it (as did Ryan).  

The 2010 bill was very controversial in the House and opposition to it was led by then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chair of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee.  The bill that passed the House was the one crafted by Nelson and Hutchison in the Senate.  The House committee had its own version, but time ran out for its consideration and the House decided to vote on the Senate version because, as then-House Science and Technology Committee Chair Bart Gordon (D-TN) said at the time, it was “better  to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all…”  Giffords disagreed, objecting particularly to the Space Launch System that was “designed not by our best engineers but by our colleagues over on the Senate side.”   She was able to convince 117 Members, including Mack, to vote with her in opposition, but that was not enough to defeat the bill.

The bill was a three-year authorization that runs through FY2013, which ends on September 30, 2013.   It is widely expected that Congress will consider a new NASA authorization bill next year.    Whether Nelson or Mack wins the Florida Senate race thus could make a considerable difference in what that bill might say. 

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