Senate unanimously confirms Nelson as NASA administrator

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Updated 8 p.m. Eastern with NASA statement.

WASHINGTON — The Senate unanimously confirmed Bill Nelson to be NASA’s next administrator, wrapping up a whirlwind confirmation process that was vastly different from that experienced by his predecessor.

The Senate confirmed Nelson’s nomination to be NASA administrator late April 29 via unanimous consent, a mechanism used for the expedited passage of bills and nominations where no senator disapproves. The confirmation came just a day after the Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported his nomination to the full Senate.

“I am honored by the president’s nomination and the Senate vote,” Nelson said in a NASA statement. “I will try to merit that trust. Onward and upward!”

The confirmation, one of several nominations passed by the Senate by unanimous consent or voice vote, comes less than six weeks after the White House announced it would nominate Nelson, the former Democratic senator from Florida, to lead the space agency. Nelson faced no opposition to his nomination in an April 21 confirmation hearing by the Commerce Committee.

The speed at which the full Senate acted on the nomination — just before it adjourned for a weeklong recess — took many by surprise. Just before the Senate confirmed Nelson, NASA issued a news release touting its accomplishments in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, one that mentioned Nelson’s nomination but not his confirmation.

It also stands in contrast in how the previous NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, was confirmed. The Trump administration did not nominate Bridenstine until September 2017, and he was not confirmed until April 2018 on a 50–49 party-line vote. A vote the day before to invoke cloture on the nomination, ending debate, was held up when one Republican senator voted against the motion, later changing his vote for reasons unrelated to the nomination.

Nelson, a senator at the time, led the opposition to Bridenstine, at the time a congressman from Oklahoma. “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional. That’s what this senator wants, a space professional, not a politician as the head of NASA,” he said during debate on Bridenstine’s nomination. However, once Bridenstine became administrator, the two worked closely together, and Bridenstine endorsed Nelson’s nomination to lead the agency last month.

Nelson’s nomination also had support across the space industry. “His experience as a U.S. senator and as a NASA astronaut makes him a fitting leader for the agency,” Eric Fanning, president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association, said in a statement after the Senate confirmed Nelson. “We look forward to working with Administrator Nelson to support the entire NASA mission, from developing the next generation of aeronautics technology, to better understanding our planet, to landing the next American on the moon and the first on Mars.”

“This strong show of bipartisan support highlights his leadership, deep expertise, and commitment to America’s space program,” said the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, another industry group. “The commercial space industry is excited to work with him to help advance NASA’s bold missions.”

“Unanimous confirmation underscores Bill Nelson’s solid relationships on Capitol Hill, which will be a big help for NASA with so many major missions on deck,” tweeted Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), chair of the House space subcommittee. “I look forward to working with Administrator Nelson on helping to keep this progress going!”

NASA hasn’t announced when Nelson will be formally sworn in, but that is expected to take place by early next week. The Senate, meanwhile, has yet to schedule confirmation hearings for the agency’s other two nominees, Pam Melroy for deputy administrator and Margaret Vo Schaus for chief financial officer.

“I’m happy to welcome Bill to the NASA family,” said Steve Jurczyk, who has been serving as acting administrator since Jan. 20. “It’s been an amazing year for NASA and our commercial and international partners, and I look forward to working with Bill and the Biden-Harris Administration to build on the incredible momentum we’ve built so far. It has been an honor to serve as acting administrator, but it’s the NASA workforce that makes the agency one-of-a-kind. Thank you for all you do to advance NASA’s critical missions.”