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Bill Nelson, the Biden Administration’s nominee to lead NASA, talks to his former colleagues on the Senate Commerce Committee during his confirmation hearing April 21. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A message of continuity from NASA’s next administrator


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The last time the Senate Commerce Committee held a confirmation hearing for a NASA administrator nominee, Bill Nelson was not happy. As the top Democrat on the committee, the Florida senator used his opening remarks to make it clear he did not think the nominee, Jim Bridenstine, was the right person for the job. “While your time as a pilot, and your service to our country in the military is certainly commendable,” Nelson told Bridenstine, “it doesn’t make you qualified to make complex and nuanced engineering, safety, and budgetary decisions for which the head of NASA must be accountable.” (See “A contentious confirmation”, The Space Review, November 6, 2017.)

“It’s great to see you nominated for this position, something that you are eminently qualified to do. Your passion for space is legendary,” Peters told Nelson.

Last week, Nelson was back for the latest confirmation hearing. This time, though, rather than seated at the dais, he was at the witness table as the Biden Administration’s nominee to lead the space agency. Would his criticism of Bridenstine from three and a half years ago as someone who was not the “consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive” that he believed should lead NASA come back to haunt him?

Not exactly. His confirmation hearing last Wednesday—one that he shared with a nominee to serve on the Federal Trade Commission and the general counsel for the Commerce Department—could hardly have gone more smoothly. Members of both parties lined up to signal their support for their former colleague, and no senator at the hearing expressed any reservations about having Nelson be NASA’s next administrator.

“It’s a particular joy to see you here today,” said Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) when it was his turn to question Nelson, more than two hours into the hearing. “It’s great to see you nominated for this position, something that you are eminently qualified to do. Your passion for space is legendary.”

Republicans were as effusive in their praise of Nelson as Democrats. “I don’t have any questions for you, Sen. Nelson,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), a member of the Commerce Committee and also the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. “I look forward to working with you both on the Commerce Committee and the Appropriations Committee in regards to NASA and our future space opportunities.”

Even Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), who denied Nelson a fourth term in the Senate by defeating him in 2018 in a race so close and contentious that it was weeks before Nelson finally conceded, appeared to support the nomination. “It’s nice to see a Floridian nominated for NASA,” he told Nelson before asking him about the importance of Florida to NASA.

The closest thing the hearing had to criticism—of NASA, not of Nelson—came from the committee’s chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). “I have to say I was surprised last week about the Human Landing System development contract,” she said in her opening remarks. That surprise was the agency’s decision to make just a single award, to SpaceX, rather than the two that were widely anticipated (see “All in on Starship”, The Space Review, April 19, 2021).

“I think there needs to be redundancy, and it has to be clear in this process that it can’t be redundancy later. It has to be redundancy now,” Cantwell said of the HLS program.

While she didn’t explicitly state it, that surprise is also linked to the fact that Blue Origin, headquartered in the Seattle suburb of Kent, Washington, did not get that single award. Once Nelson gave his opening remarks, she returned to the topic. “Obviously, NASA has a big tradition of ensuring resiliency in commercial programs by using multiple competitors, maintaining what’s called ‘dissimilar redundancy.’ I want to know that you’ll commit to rapidly providing Congress with a plan for ensuring that kind of resiliency on the human lander program.”

“Competition is always good,” Nelson responded. However, he stuck to the approach NASA described less than a week earlier when the agency defended its decision to make just one HLS awards, stating that it would accelerate the procurement of landing services in a follow-on contract. “Those competitions will be there, as articulated by the deciding authority on this competition,” he said, referring to statements about those plans by NASA at the media briefing announcing the selection of SpaceX for the single HLS award.

Cantwell seemed to accept the answer, even as she pressed to speed up that opportunity to select a second company. “I think there needs to be redundancy, and it has to be clear in this process that it can’t be redundancy later. It has to be redundancy now,” she said.

Perhaps the only other complaint senators had about Nelson was that he sometimes spoke too much. Nelson, as loquacious as ever, often included anecdotes or offered extended remarks for answers, forcing senators who had only a limited allotment of time to interrupt or otherwise cut him off so they could ask another question of him or another nominee at the hearing.

The hearing made it clear that Nelson will soon become NASA’s 14th administrator. The Senate Commerce Committee plans to formally vote to report his nomination to the full Senate this Wednesday, as part of an executive session to deal with other bills and nominations. The Senate would likely vote to confirm him shortly thereafter.

Continuity is “very important,” Nelson said of major programs like Orion and SLS. “It’s very important to keep this continuity going from year to year.”

But what did the hearing reveal about how Nelson would lead NASA? Throughout the hearing, he stayed away from specifics on many issues. “Understand that they won’t let me get into the innards, ’cause I still can’t talk to NASA until you all may decide to confirm me,” he said when responding to one question about HLS.

If there was one message he offered, though, it was one of continuity. “The space program needs constancy of purpose,” he noted in his written opening statement, citing his support for a 2017 NASA authorization act that sought to provide continuity for NASA at the beginning of the Trump Administration.

It was already clear, though, that the Biden Administration was not planning major changes, like the Obama Administration’s cancellation of Constellation or the Trump Administration’s redirection of NASA’s human spaceflight program back to the Moon. The White House already endorsed the Artemis program, backing that up with a budget proposal earlier this month that offers $24.7 billion for the agency, a 6.3% increase overall. NASA’s exploration programs would get about a 5% increase in the proposal, although specific details about the budget won’t be released until some time in May.

Nelson went so far as to leave open the possibility that the Artemis program could return humans to the Moon on 2024, the goal set by the Trump Administration two years ago. “I was excited about the idea of a lunar landing in 2024 and a Mars landing in 2029,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), ranking member of the committee, said. (NASA has no plans to send humans to Mars in 2029, so it’s unclear what he meant by that.) “That timetable has slipped. Could you discuss that just briefly?”

Nelson responded that SpaceX’s proposal for HLS would allow the company to carry out a crewed landing on the Moon in 2024, if all goes according to plan. “I think we all have to recognize that space is hard, and it’s an ambitious timetable, but that is what has been stated,” he said. “I think you may be pleased that we’re going to see that timetable try to be adhered to.”

That commitment to staying the course extends to other areas, including ruling out any kind of rapprochement with China. “There is a threat China poses,” he said in response to a question by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), such as the theft of intellectual property. “China has said that they want to have a landing of humans on the Moon. More recently, China has said that they’re going to link up with Russia to put humans on the Moon. I think there’s a lot more that has to be done by saying it and then actually doing it, because space is hard, but I think we need to be concerned about that.”

Nelson later reaffirmed his support for the Wolf Amendment, which restricts bilateral cooperation between NASA and Chinese entities. “That is the law, and NASA will abide by that,” he told Scott.

Nelson offered few surprises in his testimony. He backed NASA’s education programs (which the new budget request would increase funding for, after four years of Trump Administration proposals to cancel them), efforts to improve the diversity of NASA’s workforce, and increases in Earth science funding. “You can’t mitigate climate change unless you can measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” he told Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-CO). “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”

“That’s the spirit of NASA, to keep us going in a bipartisan—indeed, nonpartisan—way,” Nelson said.

He also, unsurprisingly, endorsed continuing the Space Launch System and Orion programs, and keeping the International Space Station going as long as feasible, all priorities for him when he served in the Senate. Continuity is “very important,” he said when asked by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) about importance of continuing Artemis and its major programs, like the Space Launch System. “It’s very important to keep this continuity going from year to year.”

Nelson didn’t get the grilling that he and other Democratic senators gave to Bridenstine in 2017, but Nelson and Bridenstine have already moved beyond that. In Nelson’s final months in the Senate, he praised Bridenstine for his leadership of the agency, and after Nelson left the Senate, Bridenstine named him to the NASA Advisory Council in 2019.

Bridenstine endorsed Nelson’s nomination to be administrator last month, and Nelson thanked him in both his written statement and at last week’s hearing. “I want to thank Jim Bridenstine, the former administrator, who did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances, and as a result he became very popular in NASA,” Nelson said. “I want to thank him for his friendship, his very gracious comments to me.”

“That’s the spirit of NASA, to keep us going in a bipartisan—indeed, nonpartisan—way,” he continued. “There should be no partisanship as we venture forth exploring new horizons.” We’ll see how long that spirit of bipartisanship lasts in very partisan times.


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