On Monday, a rumor, which has been simmering in Washington for several weeks, surfaced that former US Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, is a leading candidate to become the next NASA administrator.
Publication Breaking Defense Publication shared the rumor on Twitter, noting that Nelson has a “strong” relationship with President Biden and understands how Congress works. Nelson, who is 78 years old, lost his 2018 re-election bid to the Senate. He had served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives and three terms in the Senate.
Two sources told Ars that Nelson is doing everything he can to become an administrator, taking advantage of his friendly relationship with Biden. “This is more than a rumor,” said a source. It’s not a foregone conclusion, though, as after the rumor broke, there was resistance in the space community over Nelson’s appointment to the position, which has a long and sometimes controversial history in the space community.
Simon Porter, an astrophysicist on the New Horizons mission who has spoken out on Twitter, perhaps best summed up some of this fear. by writingThis is literally ‘Trump putting oil executives in charge of EPA’ levels of bad and corrupt. It has to be pushed by the lobbyists for the SLS contractors, and if Biden even considers it, he’s listening to the lobbyists, not the professionals.”
Nelson the astronaut
Nelson would certainly bring a lot of experience and fame in the role of NASA administrator. In addition to representing Kennedy Space Center in Congress for decades, he flew on the space shuttle as a payload specialist Colombia in January 1986.
Much of the space industry, however, saw Nelson’s mission as an influential politician who vigorously pushed his way into the space shuttle with a view to self-aggrandizement. In his book Riding RocketsFormer NASA astronaut Mike Mullane colorfully narrates the antics of Nelson, who Mullane says made every effort to gain favorable publicity.
“He wanted to be a contributing crew member and do something very important,” Mullane wrote. “There was only one problem. None of the principal investigators on any of the experiments that occurred during the mission wanted Nelson to come near their equipment. They were given one chance to fly their experiments, had months with the astronauts worked on how best to operate the equipment, and didn’t feel the need to let a non-technical politician step in and mess things up at the last minute.”
Ultimately, Nelson earned a disdainful nickname from his crew members for the role he ended up playing on the shuttle mission –Ballast†
Space Launch System
More recently, Nelson played a key role in NASA’s development of the precious Space Launch System rocket. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama tried to cancel NASA’s efforts to build a large rocket, the Ares V, and see if the private sector could build launch vehicles more efficiently. This would free up NASA’s budget for technology development and other purposes as companies like SpaceX started to show promise.
Nelson joined the major Republicans who oppose and vote against this plan. As a result, NASA was ordered to build another large rocket, the Space Launch System, as a replacement for the Ares V. (More than a decade and $20 billion later, the SLS rocket has yet to be launched). Nelson also led the order to cut funding for commercial crews, NASA’s initiative to allow companies like SpaceX and Boeing to supply astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle’s retirement.
Working with Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, Nelson saw that the commercial crew program received less than half the money the White House sought for commercial crew from 2011 to 2014. Instead, Congress plowed this money into the SLS. -rocket ship.
Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Nelson continued to criticize NASA for its support of commercial companies, especially SpaceX. After SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced development of the Falcon Heavy rocket — a low-cost competitor to the SLS — Nelson reached out to NASA officials for their support of the company. Keep “your boy” in line, he said, according to two sources.
Not a politician
In 2017, Nelson also led the opposition to Jim Bridenstine who became NASA administrator. While serving as the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees NASA, Nelson said Bridenstine was too partisan and political to run NASA. He also accused Bridenstine of not having the expertise to do so.
“The head of NASA should be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson said of Bridenstine, then a two-year congressman from Oklahoma.
Bridenstine would later become a respected administrator of the space agency, rarely showing anything but duality as he advanced the space agency’s efforts in human exploration and scientific research.
There are now concerns among scientists that Nelson Bridenstine’s enthusiasm for advancing the agency as a whole or for scientific research does not share. This is because as a Florida congressman, Nelson generally only sought funding for Kennedy Space Center and programs like the SLS rocket, which used space shuttle-era technology and supported local orbits.
When asked about her thoughts on Nelson as a potential NASA administrator, Lori Garver, who served as the space agency’s deputy administrator during the Obama administration, was less than enthusiastic. “Now is not the time to turn back the clock at NASA,” she said.