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Biden Taps Florida's Former Senator Bill Nelson To Run NASA. What's Next For NASA And Florida's Space Coast?

Bill Nelson on STS-61-C in 1986.
Bill Nelson on STS-61-C in 1986.

President Joe Biden has picked former Senator Bill Nelson to lead NASA. If confirmed, Nelson will be the second consecutive politician to hold the post — a view he was adamantly against during the 2017 confirmation of his predecessor Jim Bridenstine.

President Joe Biden has picked former Senator Bill Nelson to lead NASA. He’s no stranger to space policy. For much of his more than three decades in Congress, the Florida-native Democrat championed space programs and steered federal funding to NASA and his home state. He even flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia back in 1986.

“I’m honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”

If confirmed, Nelson will be the second consecutive politician to hold the post — a view he was adamantly against during the 2017 confirmation of his predecessor Jim Bridenstine.

“The NASA Administrator should be a consummate space professional, who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive,” Nelson said in his opening statement during a Senate committee hearing during the confirmation process.

“The leader of NASA should not be political, the leader of NASA should not be bipartisan, the leader of NASA should be nonpartisan.”

Bridenstine was, by most accounts, that skilled executive, garnering bipartisan support for NASA’s Artemis program, the agency’s return to the lunar surface, and securing funding for the development of a new lunar lander. Fans of Bridenstine even created a petition, asking him to stay on through the next administration.

And Nelson even changed his mind about Bridenstine — praising his leadership.

The NASA administrator oversees a more than 17,000 person workforce charged with returning humans to the moon, renewing a focus on climate change and leveraging commercial partnerships within the agency.

The Biden administration will likely continue the agency’s push to land humans on the moon once more, the first since the end of the Apollo program in the 1970s. NASA’s Artemis program received a big boost from Bridenstine and the Trump administration.

Bridenstine’s success in navigating both the agency of NASA and the halls of Congress helped him meet those goals and paved the way for Nelson.

“We’ve seen with Jim Bridenstine, how much it can benefit NASA to have that kind of political connection and political savvy, to know how to take non partisan issues that space tends to be and weave it through a highly partisan environment,” said space policy analyst Laura Forczyk.

Nelson’s nomination has already received endorsements across the aisle including his former Senate colleague and Republican Marco Rubio. “I cannot think of anyone better to lead NASA than Bill Nelson,” Rubio said. “There has been no greater champion, not just for Florida’s space industry, but for the space program as a whole than Bill [Nelson].”

The former Senator even received an endorsement from former administrator Jim Bridenstine.

“Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA Administrator,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “He has the diplomatic skills to lead an international coalition sustainably to the Moon and on to Mars. 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. The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay.”

Nelson faces a likely smooth confirmation in the Senate. But for some, the choice comes as a disappointment for an administration that’s been selecting diverse nominees for key federal posts.

“My choice, my preference, my hope was that we would have a woman,” Charlie Bolden, a retired Marine and astronaut told WMFE. He led NASA during Barack Obama’s presidency, serving as NASA’s first black administrator.

“I would have loved to have a black woman, but there was no black woman in the queue. I’m happy with Senator Nelson, provided he has a female deputy.”

While Biden has yet to name a deputy administrator, it’s believed he will pick a woman for this post. Former astronaut Pam Melroy is Biden’s pick for that position, according to sources familiar with the process.

Still, Nelson is receiving support from the space community, garnering endorsements from old-space and new-space alike.

There’s a struggle between government agencies, legacy space companies and new, innovative commercial players coming on the market — a gap Nelson can bridge.

“I think Nelson has demonstrated a noteworthy appreciation for the stunning progress and accomplishments that SpaceX and others have done in terms of performing and at a speed and efficiency that government programs just can’t match, regardless of how much money you throw at them,” said Space Florida’s Dale Ketcham.

Nelson is keenly aware of the new challenges of space, from leveraging commercial partners to a new space race with China. Nelson’s long history with Florida will be deeply beneficial to the state.

“It’s a global competition,” said Ketcham. “I think the advantage there is that Bill [Nelson] has an awareness more so than others as to what strengths Florida can bring to that competition.”

Nelson’s nomination now heads to the Senate for confirmation.

Copyright 2021 WMFE. To see more, visit WMFE.

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