Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the leading advocate for space among Democratic senators, formally conceded defeat Nov. 18 in his bid to win a fourth term.

After nearly two weeks of recounts in a hotly contested race against Rick Scott, the state’s outgoing Republican governor, Nelson acknowledged that he had fallen short. Final results after the recounts showed that while Nelson had narrowed the gap, he still trailed Scott by a little more than 10,000 votes out of nearly 8.2 million cast in the race.

“Well, things worked out a little differently than Grace and I had hoped. But let me say, I by no measure feel defeated,” Nelson said in a video statement, referring to his wife. “And that’s because I have had the privilege of serving the people of Florida and our country for most of my life.”

Nelson, who flew in space on a shuttle mission in early 1986 when he served in the House, had been the leading senator on space issues among Democrats. He was the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and regularly appeared at hearings of its space subcommittee.

Nelson often urged that space be treated as a nonpartisan issue, and frequently worked with Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, on space issues. Nelson was an original co-sponsor of Cruz’s Space Frontier Act, introduced in July, that addresses commercial space regulatory reform issues and authorizes an extension of the life of the International Space Station to 2030.

However, Nelson led the Democratic opposition to the administration’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine to be NASA administrator, in part because he felt Bridenstine, a congressman, lacked the expertise to be administrator. “While your time as a pilot and your service to our country in the military is certainly commendable, it doesn’t make you qualified to make the complex and nuanced engineering, safety and budgetary decisions for which the head of NASA must be accountable,” Nelson told Bridenstine at a November 2017 confirmation hearing.

Bridenstine was confirmed on a strict party-line vote in April, though, and Nelson later praised him for his work at the agency. “Thank you for your continuing commitment to keep NASA apolitical,” Nelson told Bridenstine at a Sept. 26 hearing. “Thank you listening to the very smart and dedicated professionals.”

Nelson, in his concession speech, briefly mentioned space. “As a country, we need to continue to launch rockets and explore the heavens, and I have seen the blue brilliance of the Earth from the edge of the heavens,” he said, adding that he will “fight on to save this planet” from the effects of climate change.

Nelson is the second influential Democrat to leave the Senate in as many election cycles. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who championed NASA as a leading appropriator for many years, including a stint as chair of the appropriations committee, declined to run for reelection and retired after the 2016 campaign.

Rick Scott will come to the Senate after two terms as governor of Florida that included support for the state’s space industry as it recovered from the end of the shuttle program. “Scott has been a strong reformer and innovator when it comes to supporting commercial space in the state of Florida,” said Jim Muncy, president of PoliSpace, earlier this month.

Nelson’s loss adds to the attrition of members involved in space issues in Congress. In the House. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chaired the appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA, lost his bid for another term. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, declined to run for another term this year. Several other Republican members of the science committee also lost reelection, including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Steve Knight (R-Calif.), Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) and Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.).

Muncy noted that several of those members worked on space issues even though they didn’t have local interests, like companies or NASA centers, in their districts. “I obviously think it’s a huge loss for the House to see the departures of three Republicans, Lamar Smith retiring and Culberson and Rohrabacher defeated, all who genuinely cared about space and weren’t just serving a parochial interest of their districts,” he said.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...