White House — No News on NASA Administrator

White House — No News on NASA Administrator

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tamped down, but did not reject, rumors that former Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) will be the next NASA Administrator. The rumor started circulating on Twitter yesterday. Asked about it today, she said the White House has nothing to report about who will be asked to serve or when an announcement will be made.

The Biden Administration has been in office for four weeks and the space community is eager to find out what Biden’s space priorities are and who will serve in key positions such as NASA Administrator. Biden has been singing NASA’s praises since the successful landing of the Mars Perseverance rover last Thursday, fueling hopes that a NASA Administrator announcement might be near.

Steve Jurczyk, the top civil servant at the agency, is Acting Administrator. Typically it takes a new administration a few months to name a NASA Administrator and weeks or months for that person to be confirmed by the Senate, but in the Trump Administration, it was 15 months. Robert Lightfoot, who then held Jurczyk’s position of Associate Administrator, did a superlative job holding the fort, but many are hoping it will not be that long this time around.

One of the reasons it took so long was that President Trump nominated a politician, Jim Bridenstine, then a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, for the job.  He was opposed by all the Democrats on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Ultimately all Democrats in the Senate voted against him. Confirmed on a party-line vote of 50-49 on April 19, 2018, he quickly won over critics and his departure from NASA at the end of the Trump Administration was met with regret by many inside and outside the agency.

Nelson was the Ranking Member of the Senate Commerce Committee at the time and led the opposition. Among his arguments was that “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.”  Florida’s other Senator, Marco Rubio (R), expressed similar reservations after Bridenstine’s nomination but ultimately voted for him.

Ironically, Nelson, himself a career politician, reportedly is now seeking the job. A member of the House from 1979-1991 and the Senate from 2001-2019, the space program has been a defining element of Nelson’s political career not only because he represented Florida with its strong civil, commercial and national security space presence, but personal interest. As a member of the House subcommittee that oversaw NASA, he flew on a January 1986 space shuttle mission earning his astronaut wings. Nelson’s chance came after NASA flew a Republican Senator, Jake Garn, who headed the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, on a shuttle flight the previous year.

Bridenstine and Nelson apparently made amends and Bridenstine appointed Nelson to the NASA Advisory Council in 2019.

Rumors that Nelson was angling to get the NASA Administrator post surfaced behind the scenes about two weeks ago. He and Biden served in the Senate together for 8 years and Nelson worked on the Biden presidential campaign.

Yesterday Breaking Defense tweeted that Nelson would be nominated as Administrator and former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy as his Deputy.

The tweet referenced @Genevaexpat, its widely respected reporter Theresa Hitchens.

Col. Pam Melroy (Ret.) is one of those speculated to be on the list for consideration as the next Administrator, not Deputy. An Air Force test pilot, after piloting and commanding space shuttle missions she has spent her post-NASA career in government (FAA/AST, DARPA) and working with international partners.

At the daily White House news briefing, Psaki was asked if the rumors about Nelson were true.  She replied there is no news on who will be nominated or when.

The prospect of Nelson as NASA Administrator met with mixed reviews on Twitter. Lauded as a champion for NASA, he also is criticized as emblematic of the old school way of thinking. He and former Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) were the key Senators who wrote the FY2010 NASA Authorization Act directing NASA to build the Space Launch System (SLS) as a government-owned system developed through traditional cost-plus contracts. lt is years late and billions over budget, still awaiting its first launch. Public-private partnerships, exemplified by the commercial cargo and commercial crew systems where the companies pay a share of development costs and retain ownership of the systems, have since been embraced by NASA as the path forward. The question is whether Nelson would keep the agency headed in that direction or move backwards to the old way of doing business.

Many in the space community also have been anticipating that the next head of NASA will be a woman. The NASA Deputy Administrators in the second George W. Bush Administration and all eight years of the Obama Administration (Shana Dale, Lori Garver and Dava Newman) were women. Hopes the Trump Administration would at least follow suit, if not nominate a woman to be Administrator, were not realized.

Time will tell if Biden ultimately nominates someone to break the glass ceiling.

Melroy is extremely well qualified, and is not the only woman from science, engineering or politics with noteworthy credentials.  Among others mentioned are Ellen Stofan, Director of the National Air and Space Museum and former NASA Chief Scientist; Wanda Austin, former President of the Aerospace Corporation; Wanda Sigur, former Vice President and General Manager of Lockheed Martin’s Civil Space Division; and former Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), who previously worked at the Space Foundation.

Psaki has been surprised by other space questions in recent weeks and returned the next day with a more complete answer.  Tomorrow’s daily press conference may be worth watching.

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