In a matter of weeks, Bill Nelson will be NASA’s newest administrator. Since the White House announced its nomination of the former senator to lead the agency March 19, there’s been a wave of endorsements from political figures and industry. Barring a sudden and unexpected reversal of fortune, Nelson should be sworn in as administrator later this spring.
Notably, one of the first to back Nelson was Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who said there was “no greater champion” for the space program than his former Senate colleague. That’s a sign that his nomination has the bipartisan support essential in an evenly divided Senate to speed his confirmation.
However, Nelson still has to go through the confirmation process, starting with a hearing by the Senate Commerce committee April 21. It will be a familiar venue but an unfamiliar position for Nelson, who will be seated at the witness table rather than on the dais, as he was when he was the committee’s top Democrat. He will be facing some of the same senators he once served with on that committee.
While senators may be willing to take it easy on Nelson to smooth his path to confirmation, they should still use the hearing to pin down Nelson’s views on a variety of issues, including how they’ve changed since his time in the Senate.
Nelson was a skeptic of NASA’s commercial crew plans when the agency unveiled them more than a decade ago, suggesting at one point that its funding be used instead on heavy-lift rockets. He later backed the program as it matured, and now commercial crew is a cornerstone of NASA’s human spaceflight programs: the next Crew Dragon mission is scheduled to launch a day after Nelson’s confirmation hearing.
NASA’s use of commercial partnerships has grown in the last decade, in particular the Human Landing System program to develop lunar landers for Artemis. Some in Congress question that approach, including Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the House Science Committee, who wants NASA to use a more conventional contract. Does Nelson’s past skepticism of commercial crew extend to HLS today, or has he become a commercial convert?
Similarly, NASA is engaging with industry on commercial space station concepts that could one day succeed the International Space Station. Nelson, while in the Senate, led efforts to extend the authorization of the ISS through the 2020s. Is he willing to support an eventual transition from the ISS that ensures there’s no gap in low Earth orbit, but also in a way that prevents the ISS from competing with commercial stations?
Then there’s the Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket that Nelson helped birth in the 2010 NASA authorization act. Nelson lovingly called the SLS the “monster rocket” but its development is years behind schedule. What can he do to get SLS through its final stages of development, and also keep it relevant in an era with more commercial alternatives, from New Glenn to Starship?
Nelson was prominent in the Senate on human spaceflight, but less so on NASA’s science programs. How will he manage those programs as Earth science gains prominence within the Biden administration’s emphasis on climate change, while not neglecting major missions in astrophysics, heliophysics and planetary science?
Then there’s Nelson’s own views on who should lead NASA. When the committee took up the previous nominee for NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, in 2017, then-Sen. Nelson led the opposition. NASA, he said then, should be led by “a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive” rather a politician like Bridenstine — or like Nelson.
Nelson lost that battle, but later thanked Bridenstine for his leadership of the agency. When the White House nominated Nelson in March, Bridenstine was among those who endorsed Nelson, saying his “political clout” will help NASA. Nelson may now realize you don’t need to be a consummate space professional to lead NASA, but he should still explain his change of mind to his former colleagues.
Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the April 19, 2021 issue.