Enlarge /. The Space Launch System was created as part of a political compromise between US Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) And Senators from Alabama and Texas.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
This morning the White House named former US Senator Bill Nelson as NASA's next administrator.
The 78-year-old Nelson lost his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2018. He had served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives and three terms in the House of Lords. He has a close relationship with President Biden and is an effective advocate for the appointment. Nelson has yet to be ratified by a majority in the U.S. Senate, but that seems likely to happen with some Republicans providing early support.
"Almost every piece of space and science law has left its mark, including the passage of the landmark 2010 NASA law with Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson," the nomination reads.
The former senator, who indeed was deeply involved in space politics, would bring a lot of experience and familiarity to the role of NASA administrator. In addition to his decades of representation of the Kennedy Space Center in Congress, he flew in January 1986 as a payload specialist for the Space Shuttle Columbia. However, Nelson is far from popular in the space community, both because of his way of becoming an astronaut and, for some of them, his space policy choices.
Only senators can ask questions of candidates at hearings, but if Ars had a seat at the table, these would be the top five questions that would interest Nelson most.
1. If commercial space can do a better job, should NASA buy in?
Nelson was initially an opponent of commercial space travel – specifically, efforts to rely on private companies to deliver astronauts to the US space station. For example, during a Senate hearing in 2010, he suggested that the Senate could simply accept President Obama's $ 6 billion application to finance the commercial occupation and put that money into the Space Launch System rocket.
“What would happen if Congress – since Congress controls the wallets – decided not to use the US $ 6 billion projected by the President over the next five years to humanize commercial vehicles, but to speed it up. .. Heavy vehicle for the Mars program? Nelson asked during a hearing.
Nelson made similar comments for several years. He eventually began to make more positive comments about the commercial crew after Boeing determined in 2014 that the facility to process the Starliner crew vehicle would be located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. He later also began to realize that SpaceX would take off from Florida dozens of times a year. This makes it clear that Nelson's motivation is to protect Florida jobs – a parochial, if understandable, motivation for a state senator.
However, a NASA administrator has to represent all of NASA and not just advocate for some states. Today it is pretty well established that NASA should buy commercial services from private companies in near-earth orbit. The debate now is whether this public-private partnership model should be expanded into space exploration. This would likely save money and speed exploration, but it would also jeopardize the political interests of parishes in Alabama, Florida, and elsewhere. Would Nelson be willing to stand up against former friends in the Senate and in the aerospace industry to make this happen?
2. Do you still think politicians shouldn't run NASA?
In 2017, Nelson led the opposition to Jim Bridenstine as NASA's administrator. Nelson was then the senior member of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA, and said Bridenstine was too partisan and political to run NASA. He also accused Bridenstine of lacking the relevant expertise. "The head of NASA should be a space professional, not a politician," Nelson said of Bridenstine, then a two-year congressman from Oklahoma.
Now Nelson, a former politician like Bridenstine, will sit in the witness chair. Why shouldn't the rules he'd used against Bridenstine four years ago apply to him now?
3. How can NASA expand the country's global climate leadership?
During the Bridenstine verification process in 2017, Nelson also accused Bridenstine of being a climate change denier. In response, Bridenstine replied that his views on the matter had evolved, and he generally supported NASA's efforts to study earth sciences during his tenure.
One concern that scientists have expressed about Nelson is that his support for earth sciences has been lukewarm during his tenure in the Senate. Yes, he absolutely believed in climate change and saw the threat. However, he was far more interested in finding funding for the Space Launch System rocket under the NASA budget, and specifically hundreds of millions of dollars a year in work on ground systems at the Kennedy Space Center.
The Biden administration has identified climate change as one of the greatest threats the United States faces. How would Nelson attack this issue? And how would he work with the president's science advisors on this?
4. Should NASA close the store?
In addition to Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Nelson was a key architect of the SLS missile in 2010 and 2011. NASA and the White House were cautious about embarking on this project as it went without saying that building the rocket using traditional, costly contract methods would be time consuming and expensive. The Obama administration wanted to see if private companies like United Launch Alliance and SpaceX could do a better job.
Nelson fought tirelessly and promised that the SLS missile program would deliver. "This missile comes at the expense of not only what we valued in the NASA Authorization Act, but less," Nelson said at the time. “The five to six year cost of the rocket on NASA's approval bill shouldn't be more than $ 11.5 billion. That costs $ 10 billion for the missile. "
He later went on and said, "If we can't build a rocket for $ 11.5 billion, we should close the store."
More than a decade later, and after NASA has spent more than $ 20 billion, it is probably still about a year away from the first SLS rocket launch. Despite a successful test fire on Thursday, the program has been labeled by critics as a "job program" that hinders NASA rather than advancing its interests.
Should NASA close the store? Or, more realistically, should NASA agree to what the Obama administration wanted to do a decade ago, recognizing that the private sector builds missiles much better than government institutions?
5. Why do you want this job?
It is not clear what Nelson's vision is for NASA, and this is important as it is difficult and demanding to serve as an administrator. In all fairness, skepticism about Nelson's motivations is widespread in the space community. His 1986 flight on the Space Shuttle Columbia was widely viewed as an opportunistic move in advancing his political career. Some of his fellow astronauts called him "ballast" for the role they played during the mission.
Bridenstine's nomination, of course, also met widespread skepticism in 2017, and he generally overcame those concerns to get high marks from space historians. It is possible that Nelson will face this opportunity as well, and surely the space community will move him to lead NASA forward. But how would he do that?Enlarge /. One-time shuttle astronaut and former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson rides a classic Corvette during the Man on the Moon astronaut parade in Cocoa Beach, Florida on July 13, 2019.
In 2017, some of us who follow space politics understood perfectly that Bridenstine brought a lot to the table. During his more than two terms in the House of Representatives, Bridenstine had shown a keen interest in space politics rather than parochial interests. He was genuinely interested in seeing the US space company advance – across civil, commercial, and national defense sectors – into the future. Speaking of lunar resources as America's Sputnik moment in space, he penned the ambitious American Space Renaissance Act. He wanted the NASA job to start with these reforms, and that's exactly what he was trying to do.
Now it's not clear why Nelson wants this job. What are his passions? How will the 78-year-old lead NASA into a new era in which the space industry is changing rapidly with the emergence of countless trading companies and increasing Chinese competition in civil space? Hopefully he can articulate this and explain how he will help ensure NASA astronauts get to the moon in a sustainable way this decade to stay.