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Politics / Issues

Biden To Nominate Former Sen. Bill Nelson Of Florida As NASA Head

Then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol in 2018. Nelson has been chosen to lead NASA.
Then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol in 2018. Nelson has been chosen to lead NASA.

Nelson, who spent six days in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, would succeed Trump-era Administrator Jim Bridenstine.

President Biden on Friday announced his intent to nominate former Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson to the top job at NASA. Nelson, who spent six days in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, would replace Jim Bridenstine, who resigned in January to make way for the new administration's appointee.

Nelson represented Orlando and Florida's Space Coast in the U.S. House before eventually moving to the Senate in 2001, where he served three terms before being defeated in 2018 by then-Gov. Rick Scott. He was the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Nelson is one of three people to have flown on the space shuttle while serving in Congress.

"Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint, including passing the landmark NASA bill of 2010," the White House said in a statement. "That law set NASA on its present dual course of both government and commercial missions."

Then-Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., shown in his official NASA portrait. Nelson, who flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, has been nominated to be NASA's new administrator.
/ NASA
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Then-Rep. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., shown in his official NASA portrait. Nelson, who flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, has been nominated to be NASA's new administrator.

In August, amid speculation about who might become the next NASA administrator should then-candidate Joe Biden win the White House, Nelson said he had a handful of recommendations, "and my recommendation would not include myself."

The former senator, who still must win Senate confirmation, would assume the helm at a critical juncture for NASA. The agency is pressing ahead with plans to put humans back on the moon for the first time since 1972 and, eventually, to land astronauts on Mars.

There are concerns that the ambitious schedule for the Artemis program to put "the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024," might slip under the Biden administration. However, speaking in August, Nelson said that he believed Biden, as a fellow space buff, wanted to see the project through.

"The bottom line why Joe Biden will do this is because Joe Biden like most Americans is absolutely fascinated with spaceflight," Nelson said, according to Florida Today. "And the American people still associate the space program with humans getting on a rocket and flying in space."

NASA's back-to-the-moon program comes as other nations, particularly China, have increasingly been flexing their space muscles. China has been honing an ambitious human spaceflight capability in recent years, and earlier this month it announced a joint effort with Russia to construct a lunar research station, which could include a moon base on the surface.

Nelson, as a U.S. representative and later senator, earned a reputation as a pragmatic moderate. Beginning in the late 1970s, he became a key champion of NASA through the agency's post-Apollo years, when it struggled with generally shrinking budgets and shifting priorities.

In the 1980s, NASA, hoping to bolster support in Congress, began planning to send non-professionals into space. Nelson raised his hand.

Writing in his 1988 memoir, Mission, Nelson said he felt that, "If I was going to speak about the space program accurately in Congress, I wanted to feel what the astronauts felt."

So he began preparing by running four miles a day and working out in the gym. Nelson, sitting in the back seat of an Air Force F-16, even convinced the jet fighter's pilot to pull nine G's so the then-congressman could see what it felt like.

In 1985, he was selected by NASA to fly as a payload specialist on STS-61-C, which launched in January 1986, nine months after Utah Republican Sen. Jake Garn's flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Nelson's flight on Columbia was the last shuttle mission before the Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing seven astronauts, including would-be teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe. Columbia, too, was ultimately destroyed on re-entry in 2003, with the loss of another seven astronauts.

The only other sitting member of Congress to fly in space was former Mercury astronaut Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, in 1998 aboard space shuttle Discovery. At 77 he was also the oldest person to fly in space. Glenn died in 2016.

Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma was confirmed by the Senate in 2017 amid objections from both Nelson and GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

"The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician," Nelson said at the time in a written statement to Politico.

Despite that, Bridenstine in 2019 chose Nelson to join NASA's Advisory Council.

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