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A politician who said politicians shouldn’t run NASA wants to run NASA

Enlarge / Then Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla., at bottom) undergoing zero-gravity training onboard a KC-135 along with other astronaut trainees in 1985. On his right is schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with seven other crew members in the Challenger disaster.

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On Monday a rumor that has simmered in Washington for several weeks boiled to the surface—that former US Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, is a leading contender to become the next NASA administrator.

The publication Breaking Defense publicly shared the rumor on Twitter, noting that Nelson has a “strong” relationship with President Biden and understands how Congress works. Nelson, 78 years old, lost his 2018 bid for reelection to the Senate. He had served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives and three terms in the upper house.

Two sources told Ars that Nelson is pushing hard to become administrator and is leveraging his friendly relationship with Biden to do so. “This is more than a rumor,” one source said. However, it is also not a done deal, as after the rumor broke there was pushback in the space community about the appointment of Nelson to the position, who has a long and at times contentious history in the space community.

Simon Porter, an astrophysicist on the New Horizons mission who is outspoken on Twitter, perhaps best summed up some of this angst by writing, “This 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 is even considering it, he’s listening to the lobbyists, not the professionals.”

Nelson the astronaut

Nelson certainly would bring plenty of experience and familiarity to the role of NASA administrator. In addition to representing Kennedy Space Center in Congress for decades, he flew as a payload specialist on space shuttle Columbia in January 1986.

However, much of the space industry saw Nelson’s mission as an influential politician strong-arming his way onto the space shuttle for the purposes of self-aggrandizement. In his book Riding Rockets, former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane colorfully recounts the antics of Nelson, whom Mullane said sought any attempt he could to obtain favorable publicity.

“He wanted to be a contributing crewmember and do something really important,” Mullane wrote. “There was just one problem. None of the principal investigators of any of the experiments manifested on the mission wanted Nelson anywhere near their equipment. They were getting one chance to fly their experiments, had been working with the astronauts for months on how to best operate the equipment, and had no desire to have a nontechnical politician step in at the last moment and screw things up.”

Eventually, Nelson earned a scornful nickname from his crewmates for the role he ultimately played on the shuttle mission—Ballast.

Space Launch System

More recently, Nelson played a key role in NASA’s development of the costly Space Launch System rocket. At the beginning of his presidency, Barack Obama sought to cancel NASA’s efforts to build a large rocket, the Ares V, and see if the private sector could more efficiently build launch vehicles. This would free up the NASA budget for technology development, and other purposes, as companies like SpaceX were beginning to show promise.

Nelson joined key Republicans in opposing this plan and marshalled votes against it. As a result, NASA was directed 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 launch). Nelson also spearheaded the charge to reduce funding for commercial crew, NASA’s initiative to have companies like SpaceX and Boeing deliver astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle’s retirement.

Working with Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, Nelson saw that the commercial crew program received less than half of the money the White House sought for commercial crew from 2011 through 2014. Instead, Congress plowed this money into the SLS rocket.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Nelson continued to lambaste NASA for its support of commercial companies, particularly SpaceX. After the founder of SpaceX, Elon Musk, announced development of the Falcon Heavy rocket—a low-cost competitor to the SLS—Nelson buttonholed NASA officials for their support of the company. Keep “your boy” in line, he told them, according to two sources.

Not a politician

In 2017, Nelson also led the opposition to Jim Bridenstine becoming administrator of NASA. Then serving as the ranking member on the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation, which oversees NASA, Nelson said Bridenstine was too partisan and political to lead NASA. He also accused Bridenstine of not having the expertise to do so.

“The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson said of Bridenstine, then a two-term Congressman from Oklahoma.

Bridenstine would go on to be a respected administrator of the space agency, rarely showing anything but bipartisanship as he advanced the space agency’s efforts in human exploration and scientific research.

Among scientists there are now concerns that Nelson does not share Bridenstine’s enthusiasm for advancing the agency as a whole or for scientific exploration. This is because, as a congressman from Florida, Nelson generally only sought funding for Kennedy Space Center, and programs such as the SLS rocket which used technology from the space shuttle era and supported local jobs.

Asked for her thoughts on Nelson as a potential administrator of NASA, Lori Garver, who served as deputy administrator for the space agency during the Obama administration, was less than enthused. “Now is not the time to turn back the clock at NASA,” she said.


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