The reported nomination of former Florida Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonNASA won't rename James Webb Space Telescope despite controversy FAA unveils new system to reduce planes' times on taxiway Technology is easy but politics is hard for NASA's Lunar Human Landing System MORE (D) to be the next NASA administrator proves, if it does anything, that it is a turning world.
Back in November 2017, when Nelson was the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, during confirmation hearings he glowered at then-Rep. Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineSpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission SpaceX all-civilian crew calls Tom Cruise from space How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? MORE (R-Okla.) and declared that a politician had no call to become the head of America’s space agency. An aerospace profession, meaning an engineer, a manager or an astronaut would be a better fit for the job.
Probably because, despite Nelson’s best efforts, Bridenstine won confirmation anyway and then went on to become the most celebrated NASA administrator since James Webb, the former senator from Florida has altered that assessment. A politician, after all, can do a pretty good job directing America’s space program. Indeed, on that basis, Bridenstine has endorsed Nelson’s nomination, setting aside obvious personal considerations for what he sees as the good of NASA. Still, the matter should come up during Nelson’s confirmation hearings just to see how he will answer.
Bridenstine put his political skills to good use running NASA and advancing the Artemis return to the moon program. He left behind partisanship and sold the program to members of Congress, foreign leaders, business tycoons and the general public. As a result, when Bridenstine resigned from NASA, the incoming administration endorsed the Artemis program. He proved that a politician could run NASA and run it well. People of all political persuasions mourned when Bridenstine left for the private sector.
However, the supposition that Nelson is right for the job just because he is a politician too becomes doubtful when one examines his record. If Bridenstine could be considered a Jedi Master of politics where space is concerned, Nelson more resembles a Sith lord.
Besides subjecting Bridenstine to a Star Chamber of a confirmation hearing, Nelson has on several other instances played politics for dubious reasons.
When Nelson was still a member of the House, he used his position to obtain a slot on a space shuttle mission. He had no qualifications other than the fact that he controlled a lot of NASA funding. The astronauts so resented his presence on the shuttle that they bestowed him with the nickname “ballast.”
Nelson is also one of the parents of the super-heavy, super-expensive, and far-behind-schedule Space Launch System (SLS), which some wags have dubbed the “Senate Launch System.” Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver described how funding the SLS was the price Nelson and others exacted for approving the Commercial Crew program in what she called a “Faustian bargain.” Congress went on to underfund the program to send astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Despite that fact, the Crew Dragon is now flying and the SLS has yet to get off the ground. Many consider the SLS as an albatross holding Artemis back, suggesting that NASA should use commercial launchers to get astronauts to the moon and Mars.
On the other hand, the SLS recently passed its hot-fire test as the last step of the Green Run. Its engines burned over eight minutes, the time they must fire during a launch, successfully.
Nelson is almost certain to be confirmed. Many of the members of the Senate Commerce Committee have served with him and most are his friends. Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDefense & National Security — Military starts giving guidance on COVID-19 vaccine refusals Blinken pressed to fill empty post overseeing 'Havana syndrome' Tim Scott takes in .3 million in third quarter MORE (R-Fla.), who also opposed Bridenstine, has endorsed his old fellow senator. Still, the hearings should not be a rubber stamp. Nelson should be questioned about his current positions on space policy thoroughly. For example:
What are Nelson’s feelings concerning commercial space flight? Does he support obtaining the Human Landing System that will take Americans to the lunar surface commercially, in the same manner as the Commercial Crew program?
Does Nelson support establishing a permanent, international lunar base? Does he support a human presence on the moon to conduct scientific exploration and commercial development, as well as prepare for expeditions to Mars? Does Nelson support developing lunar resources to sustain astronauts on the moon and to assist the Mars program?
What are Nelson’s thoughts about space cooperation with China? One item that could trip the former senator up is his investment in a Chinese telecom that the Pentagon has blacklisted.
Nelson has the potential to cap his career by furthering America’s and her allies’ expansion into space. If (when) Nelson is confirmed, it would behoove him to give his former antagonist Bridenstine a call for advice in that regard. In that way, Nelson could turn away from the dark side and do some good for his country and his civilization.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as "The Moon, Mars and Beyond." He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times and the Washington Post, among other venues.