Bill Nelson, the Biden administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, testifies at his April 21 Senate confirmation hearing. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

ORLANDO — The Biden administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, Bill Nelson, got a friendly reception from former colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee during a confirmation hearing April 21 but offered few specifics about how he would run the agency.

During a hearing that lasted more than two and a half hours and included two other non-NASA nominees, senators of both parties expressed their support for Nelson, the former Florida senator who previously was the top Democrat on the committee. No members showed any sign of opposing his nomination to lead the space agency.

The closest thing to a point of contention in the hearing was the recent NASA award of a contract to SpaceX for the Human Landing System (HLS) program. NASA announced April 16 it was awarding a single “Option A” contract for development and demonstration of a crewed lunar lander because of constrained budgets, after previously indicating it would select two companies to maintain competition.

“I have to say I was surprised last week about the Human Landing System development contract,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the committee, said in her opening statement. Blue Origin, which also bid on the HLS Option A competition, is headquartered in Kent, Washington.

After Nelson gave his opening remarks, Cantwell asked Nelson to commit to “rapidly providing Congress with a plan” to provide resiliency in the program. Nelson said he would. “Competition is always good,” he said.

At an April 16 briefing about the HLS award to SpaceX, NASA officials said they planned to accelerate the competition for the next phase of the HLS program, procuring lander services for the sustainable phase of the Artemis program. That will be a full-and-open competition, allowing companies other than SpaceX to compete, but without the financial support for lander development that SpaceX is getting with its Option A award, valued at $2.89 billion.

Nelson endorsed that approach, citing the explanation NASA gave at that briefing. “Those competitions will be there, as articulated by the deciding authority on this competition,” he said.

Cantwell, though, urged Nelson to accelerate competition in the HLS program. “I think there needs to be redundancy, and it has to be clear in this process that it can’t be redundancy later. It has to be redundancy now.”

Nelson otherwise was aligned with senators on topics ranging from increasing diversity in NASA’s workforce and improving its education programs to aligning NASA’s Earth science capabilities to the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change. “You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” he said. “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”

He also assured Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the ranking member of the committee, that he was not giving up on the previous administration’s goal of a human return to the moon in 2024, citing the schedule that SpaceX offered in its HLS bid that supports a 2024 landing. “I think we all have to recognize that space is hard, and it’s an ambitious timetable, but that is what has been stated,” he said. “I think you may be pleased that we’re going to see that timetable try to be adhered to.”

Nelson offered few details about what he might do differently at NASA on various topics. A key theme was one of continuing existing programs to avoid the stops-and-starts of past administrations. Continuity is “very important,” he said when asked about importance of continuing Artemis and its major programs, like the Space Launch System. “It’s very important to keep this continuity going from year to year.”

“The space program needs constancy of purpose,” he stated in the written version of his opening statement, citing his work on NASA authorization legislation during his time in the Senate. He praised his predecessor as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, for his work on Artemis program, and noted the Biden administration had pledged to continue it.

“If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is for us to continue to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” he said. “And there is a lot of excitement.”

That appeared enough to satisfy senators, who heaped praise on Nelson. “It’s a particular joy to see you here today,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) “It’s great to see you nominated for this position, something that you are eminently qualified to do. Your passion for space is legendary.”

“I’m delighted that you are the nominee for NASA’s head and look forward to working with you,” said Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.)

Even Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who defeated Nelson in a close, contentious race in 2018 that denied Nelson a fourth Senate term, praised Nelson. “It’s nice to see a Floridian nominated for NASA,” he said.

The full Senate Commerce Committee is expected to formally report the nomination to the full Senate as soon as April 28.

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...