US President Joe Biden has just appointed former Democratic Senator Bill Nelson as NASA administrator. This ally of the administration will be responsible for guiding an agency supposed to return humans to the Moon and strengthen its research work on the climate. But his appointment is not unanimous.
Who is Bill Nelson?
On January 20, Joe Biden’s inauguration day as head of the country, Jim Bridenstine left his post as administrator of NASA, a position he had held since April 2018. His term was short, but his experience was past. in Congress has nevertheless proved essential to rally support for the Artemis program. Since then, his deputy Steve Jurczyk has taken over until a new chief is appointed. This new leader is Bill Nelson.
The 78-year-old centrist Democrat was first elected to the Florida State House of Representatives in 1972, before being re-elected in 1974 and 1976. He then became a member of the House of Representatives of the United States in 1978 before being re-elected every two years until 1988. Then, in 2000, Nelson became a senator from Florida, winning two more terms before finally losing his re-election in 2018 to the United States. former governor, Rick Scott.
A flight in space
Nelson has also defended NASA throughout its political journey, including speaking out against the cancellation of the Space Shuttle program.
In 1986, he even became the second member of Congress to fly into space. The Senator flew aboard Shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist on mission STS-61C.
In fact, not everyone viewed this flight very positively. In his book Riding Rockets, the former astronaut Mike Mullane indeed tells in a very colorful way the “antics” of Nelson, who, according to Mullane, was only looking to make good publicity.
“He wanted to be a crew member and do something really important“, Writes Mullane. There was just one problem. None of the principal investigators on the mission wanted Nelson to be near their equipment. “They had a chance to make their experiments fly, had worked for months on how best to make them work, and had no desire for a politician to ruin everything at the last moment.“.
On paper, therefore, we have a very experienced politician, a true ally of the Biden administration and, what is more, passionate about space. However, his upcoming election is not unanimous.
Senator Marco Rubio, who was Nelson’s Republican colleague in Florida, was delighted to hear the news. “Can’t think of anyone better than Bill Nelson to lead NASA“, He recently said in a statement. “His appointment gives me assurance that the Biden administration finally understands the importance of the Artemis program and the need to win the 21st century space race. I look forward to working with him in the years to come“.
On the flip side, some had hoped Biden would pick a woman to head NASA, which has only been run by men so far. Astronaut Pam Melroy and Ellen Stofan, director of the National Air and Space Museum, were reportedly considered for the job. Eventually, the former will be appointed deputy, while the latter has just accepted the post of Smithsonian’s Under-Secretary for Science and Research.
SpaceX and SLS
Biden’s choice to call on Nelson has also sparked mixed reactions to his take on the NASA-SpaceX relationship which, for many, represents the future of the space industry.
The former senator indeed presents himself as a fervent support of the Space Launch System (SLS) program, NASA’s most powerful rocket since the Apollo Saturn V program. The former senator would have also done a lot of lobbying with ‘a Republican senator to keep NASA building this huge rocket itself, rather than going through private companies like SpaceX.
Nelson is also known to be wary of Elon Musk. According to a report to Ars Technica, he even asked agency officials to keep “their boy” under control.
However, the development of the SLS has been marred by numerous delays and billions of cost overruns, while privately-built rockets, like those of SpaceX, are taking more and more place in the industry.