Bill Nelson is a born-again supporter of commercial space at NASA

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During the Bill Nelson nomination hearings for NASA administrator, the nominee, a former senator, broke with some of his previous positions on space policy. 

The one thing that raised a lot of eyebrows was Nelson’s enthusiastic support for commercial space at NASA. He expressed approval of the commercial crew program that is sending astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). He claimed in his opening statement to have always supported commercial space. He even supported the recent selection of SpaceX’s Lunar Starship as the first crewed moon lander in 50 years.

Contrary to his opening statement, Nelson was not always as enthusiastic about commercial space flight. In 2010, according to Space News, the then-senator proposed zeroing out the commercial crew program and applying the money to the heavy lift rocket that would shortly be called the Space Launch System (SLS).

Part of what must have changed Nelson’s mind is the fact that SpaceX is now providing assured American access to space. Not coincidentally, SpaceX is launching the Crew Dragon from the Kennedy Space Center in Nelson’s own state of Florida, providing lots of jobs and money. Nothing changes minds as thoroughly as success.

Nelson also said that he supported diversity at NASA, noting that the deputy administrator nominee, former astronaut Pam Melroy, is female. He might have also noted that the next American moonwalker is likely to be a woman, drawn from the ranks of the Artemis Team. The statement might have been in response to a complaint by former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver that the selection of Nelson, an old white man, as administrator proved that the space agency had not broken with its “patriarchal and parochial past.”

Under questioning, Nelson also expressed support for the idea of landing on the moon by 2024, on Mars by the 2030s, the Artemis Accords, the National Space Council and NASA’s Earth science programs to help fight climate change. He even expressed concern about China’s drive for space dominance.

Indeed, the one overriding message that Nelson sought to impart was that his tenure as NASA administrator would be one of continuity with the previous regime. He would not propose any drastic changes in policy but would rather seek to continue those enacted by the previous administration. In past changes of presidencies, NASA has suffered whiplash with abrupt changes in the direction of its human spaceflight program.

At one point, during his opening statement, Nelson praised Jim Bridenstine, the NASA administrator under President Donald Trump. The irony could not be more obvious. Three-and-a-half years ago, during Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing, Nelson, then-ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, turned it into a kind of star chamber. He and other committee Democrats condemned Bridenstine for a variety of sins, not the least of which was being at the time a politician. Nelson, who subsequently lost his senate seat, is a retired politician now up for the same job. In the interim, he and Bridenstine have come to an understanding. Bridenstine has warmly endorsed Nelson’s nomination. Nelson pledged to seek his predecessor’s advice from time to time.

In contrast to the Bridenstine hearing, Nelson experienced nothing but love and respect from the members of the committee, many of them former senate colleagues. The only moment of tension came when committee chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), expressed unhappiness that only SpaceX received the initial contract to build a lunar Human Landing System (HLS). She had two reasons for her objection, one reasonable and another typically political.

In previous commercial spacecraft programs, NASA has been careful to award two companies contracts, the theory is that the competition will keep costs low and that redundancy will ensure that NASA has at least one spacecraft to do things like take astronauts to and from the ISS.

However, the fact that Cantwell represents Washington State, the home of Blue Origin, whose “National Team” lost out on the HLS contract, may not be a coincidence. Such are the perils of pork barrel politics.

Nelson did not point out that Congress had provided the HLS program with only enough money for one contract. His first headache as NASA administrator may be coming up with the money for two commercial lunar landers. But, if at the end of his career, Nelson can bring closer the day that Americans return to the moon, he will have established a legacy that will overshadow a lot of political sins over the years.  

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.

Tags Bill Nelson Blue Origins Donald Trump human landing system ISS Jim Bridenstine Maria Cantwell NASA NASA administration NASA funding Nelson confirmation hearing SpaceX

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