Nelson Senate hearing 2018
Bill Nelson, seen here at a September 2018 Senate hearing, has support for his nomination to lead NASA from members of Congress and the space industry. Credit: NASA/Aubrey Gemignani

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s nomination of former senator Bill Nelson as the next administrator of NASA has won widespread support from both members of Congress and the broader space community.

The White House announced March 19 its formal intent to nominate Nelson, a Democrat who served three terms in the Senate from Florida, as NASA administrator. The announcement confirmed weeks of rumors that Nelson was the leading candidate for the job.

“Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint, including passing the landmark NASA bill of 2010 along with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison,” the White House said in its statement, a reference to the 2010 NASA authorization act that Nelson and Hutchison, a Republican from Texas, authored after the Obama administration canceled the Constellation program. That bill instructed NASA to develop a new launch vehicle, the Space Launch System, and continue work on the Orion spacecraft, while also authorizing the commercial crew program that was an Obama administration priority.

“In the Senate he was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” the statement added.

The nomination will have to be confirmed by the Senate, which will mean for Nelson a return to the Senate Commerce Committee, where he served as its top Democrat in his final years there. That committee has oversight of NASA and will take up his nomination before forwarding it to the full Senate.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, signaled her support for the nomination. “Bill Nelson has long been one of NASA’s strongest and most passionate advocates,” she said in a committee statement. “I am confident that he has the expertise and the political acumen to maintain and build upon the nation’s leadership in space in both the public and commercial sectors.”

Nelson’s nomination also had the support of the leadership of the House Science Committee. “I am pleased that the president has chosen Sen. Nelson to lead NASA,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the full committee, said in a statement, citing his “decades of experience in dealing with NASA, Congress and the space and aviation communities.”

“Former Senator Nelson knows space policy inside and out as a leader on the Senate Commerce Committee, and as someone who has been to space,” said Rep. Don Beyer, (D-Va.), chair of the space subcommittee. Nelson, while serving in the House, flew as a payload specialist in 1986 on the final shuttle mission before the Challenger accident.

“His experience, knowledge and strong ties to Capitol Hill will be an asset as the Biden-Harris administration pursues an ambitious agenda of space exploration and scientific advancement, which will require support and funding from Congress,” Beyer added.

In the Senate, Nelson opposed the nomination by the Trump administration in 2017 of Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator. Nelson argued at Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing that the agency should be led by “a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive” rather than a politician such as Bridenstine, who at the time was a congressman from Oklahoma.

The Senate ultimately confirmed Bridenstine on a party-line vote, and Nelson later praised Bridenstine for keeping NASA apolitical. In 2019, after Nelson left the Senate, Bridenstine appointed him to the NASA Advisory Council.

“Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA administrator,” Bridenstine, who left the agency in January, said in a statement to SpaceNews. He praised Nelson for both “political clout” to work with Congress and the White House and “diplomatic skills” to work with international partners.

“Bill Nelson will have the influence to deliver strong budgets for NASA and, when necessary, he will be able to enlist the help of his friend, President Joe Biden,” Bridenstine said. “The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay.”

Nelson’s close relationship with President Biden, a former senator, is seen as a benefit by industry as well. “The value of an administrator who is personally close to President Biden can’t be overstated, giving NASA policy, mission and investment priorities a new level of significance in the White House,” said Mike French, vice president for space systems for the Aerospace Industries Association and a former NASA chief of staff.

Nelson has been treated more warily by more entrepreneurial elements of the space industry, who recall Nelson’s skepticism about the commercial crew program a decade ago. At a hearing in March 2010, for example, he suggested the funding the Obama administration proposed for the commercial crew program might be better used to accelerate development of heavy-lift rockets.

Nelson later supported the program, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that includes many entrepreneurial space companies, said it “applauds” his nomination to lead the space agency. “America’s commercial space industry looks forward to working with Sen. Nelson to continue providing NASA with the world’s most innovative and affordable technologies and solutions to achieve its ambitious missions above the Earth and across the solar system,” the group stated.

One of the companies that is a member of the group, Blue Origin, also endorsed Nelson’s nomination in a tweet. “Your experience both on and off Earth will ensure that we’ll have strong leadership and commitment when the U.S. returns to the Moon – this time to stay,” the company, which is part of NASA’s Human Landing System program to develop crewed lunar landers, 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...