White House not making near-term plans to nominate a NASA administrator
WASHINGTON — The White House said Feb. 23 has no schedule for nominating a NASA administrator as a new round of rumors swirl about who might be selected to lead the agency.
The topic arose at a press conference when a reporter asked press secretary Jen Psaki about rumors that the Biden administration was considering Bill Nelson, a former senator from Florida, for the post. Those rumors were first publicized Feb. 22 by Breaking Defense.
“I don’t have any personnel announcements for you or any expectation of when we’ll have an announcement on a NASA administrator, or a list of potential people,” Psaki responded. “But that’s an interesting one,” she said, apparently referring to Nelson.
Nelson would be an interesting choice. He served six terms in the House from 1978 through 1990. During that time, he flew on the space shuttle Columbia on the STS-61C mission in January 1986 as a payload specialist. Nelson returned to Congress when he was elected to the Senate in 2000, serving three terms.
In the Senate, Nelson played key roles in the selection of two previous administrators because of his interest in space policy and position as one of the top Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee. In 2009, he lobbied heavily for former astronaut Charles Bolden, who flew with him on STS-61C, to be NASA administrator, rejecting other candidates for the position that the Obama administration was considering. President Obama ultimately nominated Bolden, who was confirmed by the Senate in July 2009 and served through the end of the Obama administration in January 2017.
Nelson, though, strongly objected to the Trump administration’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, to serve as NASA administrator in September 2017. “The leader of NASA should not be political,” he said at Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing. “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive.”
Bridenstine eventually won confirmation in April 2018 on a narrow party-line vote. Nelson, months later, praised Bridenstine for keeping NASA apolitical. After Nelson lost a bid for a fourth term in 2018, Bridenstine reciprocated by naming Nelson to the NASA Advisory Council in May 2019.
Nelson served as a surrogate for the Biden campaign in the 2020 election, including one call with reporters in May 2020 where he and Bolden promoted Biden’s low-key role in space policy during his eight years as President Obama’s vice president. “Joe Biden was very much a part of this whole thing,” Nelson recalled of the efforts in 2010 to work out a deal that ultimately allowed development of both commercial crew and the Space Launch System.
The 78-year-old Nelson would appear to fall short of his own criteria he set in 2017 for being a NASA administrator. He spent most of his career in politics, and while experienced in space policy issues, would not be considered a “consummate space professional” with a technical or scientific background.
It’s unclear how seriously the Biden administration is considering Nelson to be NASA administrator. There may also be no rush to nominate a NASA administrator. Some nominees for cabinet-level positions have yet be confirmed by the Senate, and the administration has yet to nominate people to fill many other lower-level positions, like administrator of NOAA.