President Joe Biden is expected to nominate former Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida to lead NASA, settling on a longtime booster of the space program to lead the agency’s return to the moon, according to three people familiar with the decision.
If confirmed by the Senate, Nelson would lead the space agency as it partners with the new crop of private space companies to establish a long-term presence on the lunar surface in preparation for sending astronauts to Mars.
Nelson’s nomination was first reported by The Verge.
A Senate staffer and a second source familiar with the decision told POLITICO that the administration has picked Nelson, and that the announcement will come on Friday. Both sources spoke on background because they were not authorized to speak ahead of the formal announcement.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that she had seen the reports, but did not have any personnel announcements to make, adding that serving as NASA administrator “seems like a cool job.”
Nelson, 78, who himself spent six days in orbit when he flew to space in 1986 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, served as the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during his 18 years in Congress, where he was instrumental in establishing many of NASA’s current priorities.
For example, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 that he co-sponsored ordered NASA to expand the commercial crew program, which launched its first astronauts to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule last year. Nelson also encouraged NASA to set the sights for human spaceflight beyond low-Earth orbit and the space station, including a mission to Mars.
While in the Senate, Nelson was also a vocal supporter of the Space Launch System, a heavy-lift rocket made by Boeing to bring astronauts to deep space destinations such as the moon that is years behind schedule and way over budget.
After he lost his re-election bid, Nelson was named to NASA’s Advisory Council in 2019 to provide advice on the agency’s major programs and policies.
In addition to returning astronauts to the moon, NASA is gearing up for the Biden administration’s expected push to expand the space agency’s Earth science missions part of a broader effort to combat climate change and its consequences, such as rising sea levels, which were a top priority for Nelson in his home state.
“It’s not an exaggeration to say that climate change and sea-level rise are putting people’s lives and their property at risk. It’s reality,” Nelson said on the Senate floor in 2018. “The real question is, what are we going to do about it?”
But as a career politician, Nelson also has the very background that he himself has expressed concern might not be best suited for running the traditionally nonpartisan agency.
While in the Senate, Nelson was one of the most ardent critics of then-President Donald Trump’s pick to run NASA, former Rep. Jim Bridenstine. Throughout Bridenstine’s lengthy confirmation process, Nelson expressed concerns that Bridenstine’s partisan positions would divide the agency.
Nelson will likely be pressed during the confirmation process how he reconciles that opposition with his own suitability for the top post.
But a counterargument is likely to be that a politician who has relationships with lawmakers in both parties on Capitol Hill and close ties to the president can be an effective steward of the space program.
“If you have someone like Sen. Nelson, who has decades of experience and a personal relationship with the president, they’ll have a different ability to voice their reaction or response to the budget process. … That will have a very real impact,” said Mike French, the vice president of space systems at the Aerospace Industries Association. “To me, the most important thing is your ability to manage and look out for the agency’s interests … independent of your background.”