How is NASA doing under Bill Nelson’s leadership?

Bill Nelson, former senator and one-time astronaut, has been at the helm of NASA for about one year. It’s time to look back and see how Nelson is doing and also look at the challenges he faces ahead.

Everything considered, the short answer is that he is doing quite well. However, there are hurdles ahead, one of which is caused by a decision he made while still a United States senator.

As administrator, Nelson’s major organizational decision was to split NASA’s Human Operations and Exploration Mission Directorate (HOEMD) into two separate organizations. Kathy Lueders, who previously headed HOEMD, was assigned to lead the Space Operations Mission Directorate, which handles the International Space Station (ISS) and low-Earth orbit commercial spaceflight. Jim Free, who served as Deputy Associate Administrator for Technical HOEMD during the Obama administration, was given charge of the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate, encompassing Project Artemis, NASA’s mission to return to the moon.

The decision proved to be controversial, according to Space News, “Some both within and outside the agency wondered if the reorganization was, in effect, a demotion for Lueders, possibly because of the ongoing controversy over the HLS awards that led to a protest and now a lawsuit. Nelson denied that was the case.”

Regardless, the ISS and low-Earth orbit commercial spaceflight is going very well, with Inspiration 4, Crew-3, Axiom-1 and Crew-4 having had successful missions. Meanwhile, the Space Launch System (SLS) has run into some problems during the wet dress rehearsal in advance of the Artemis 1 mission.

Much of a NASA administrator’s job involves persuading both the administration he works for and Congress that pays the bills to give the space agency more money. Here, Nelson’s record is somewhat mixed.

For most of 2021, Nelson campaigned to include about $10 billion for NASA in the Build Back Better (BBB) bill, with about $5 billion going for a second lunar lander and another $5 billion for infrastructure repair. The House released a version of the BBB bill that includFor most of 2021, Nelson campaigned to include about $10 billion for NASA in the Build Back Better (BBB) bill, with about $5 billion going for a second lunar lander and another $5 billion for infrastructure repair. The House released a version of the BBB bill that included $750 million for infrastructure, $140 million for earth science, $220 million for aeronautics — but nothing for a second lunar lander. The matter became moot because the Build Back Better bill was stalled in the Senate due to objections to climate and social spending provisions from Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

The $10 billion figure for lunar landers has reappeared in another piece of legislation designed to increase American competitiveness against China. According to Politico, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is hotly opposing the provision, mischaracterizing it as a “bailout” for Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.

The 2022 NASA budget, finally passed as part of an omnibus spending bill, was generous with funding for the Space Launch System and the Human Landing System. The Biden administration’s 2023 budget request was even more generous for these key parts of the Artemis Program, paving the way for a selection of a second lunar lander. All in all, Nelson has met with success in acquiring money for NASA’s key return to the moon program.

Going forward, Nelson has three major challenges to deal with.

The first concerns the Russian partnership in the International Space Station that has been a center of the orbiting laboratory for over 25 years. Currently, NASA’s policy is to keep that partnership going as if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine never happened. But can that partnership be sustained as Russian atrocities keep piling up? And if the Russians exit, can the ISS be kept going without them?

The second problem concerns the incredibly expensive, problem-prone Space Launch System. The SLS has been rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building for repairs after a failed attempt to conduct a wet dress rehearsal. In any case, the NASA inspector general has estimated that each Artemis mission will cost $4.1 billion because of the SLS, an unsustainable amount.

Ironically, Nelson, when he was a senator, insisted that the Space Launch System be built after President Obama’s cancelation of Project Constellation. As NASA administrator, Nelson must somehow lower the cost of launching the monster rocket and make it work. 

Finally, Nelson must articulate a rationale for the Artemis return to the moon program. Will it just be a practice run for a human expedition to Mars? Nelson would be well advised to advocate that the goal of Artemis should be the establishment of a lunar base, a community of humans dedicated to science, commerce and peaceful cooperation among Earth’s civilized nations to achieve the next step in expanding civilization beyond the home planet. That would be a great cap for a long political career.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Barack Obama Bill Nelson Bill Nelson Moon NASA Obama Space Space exploration White House

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