Biden to name former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and space program champion to head NASA
WASHINGTON – Former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who once rode a space shuttle and was a leading proponent of the U.S. space program while in Congress, will be nominated as NASA's next administrator.
The announcement, released by the White House Friday, comes after weeks of speculation that President Joe Biden would name his former Senate colleague to lead the agency as it pursues a return to the moon this decade and continues its ambitious quest to send humans to Mars.
"I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities," Nelson said in a statement Friday morning. "Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos."
The announcement comes at a critical juncture for NASA as it pushes to make the deadline to return humans to the moon under the Artemis program by 2024 –— the year selected by President Donald Trump when he took office. Many industry analysts have suggested Biden will push back the deadline to 2028, which was the original timeline set by NASA.
Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia as a member of Congress in 1986, has a long history with Biden; they served together in the Senate for eight years. Both men also campaigned for each other.
Nelson will have to win Senate confirmation before he can assume the reins of the agency. If he's confirmed, he would be just the third administrator (including Richard H. Truly and Charles F. Bolden Jr.) to have actually spent time in space.
In Congress, Nelson was one of the most influential members when it came to space policy.
In 2010, he joined then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, in co-sponsoring landmark NASA legislation that remade the future of the space program.
The new law called for a dual track: commercial companies would take over low-Earth orbit tasks such as transporting astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station while NASA would focus on the moon and inter-planetary missions.
That vision came to fruition in May when a private company, SpaceX, successfully delivered two astronauts to the space station marking the first time a commercial company sent humans to the ISS.
Nelson already has the backing of one Republican — Florida Sen. Marco Rubio who served with Nelson for eight years representing the Sunshine State.
“I cannot think of anyone better to lead NASA than Bill Nelson,” Rubio said in a statement. “There has been no greater champion, not just for Florida's space industry, but for the space program as a whole than Bill. His nomination gives me confidence that the Biden Administration finally understands the importance of the Artemis program, and the necessity of winning the 21st century space race."
If approved by Congress, Nelson will be NASA's 14th administrator, succeeding Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman from Oklahoma appointed by Trump. Bridenstine oversaw NASA during the historic SpaceX launches of astronauts to the space station.
Nelson helped delay Bridenstine's confirmation as NASA administrator for months over previous statements the Oklahoma lawmaker had made regarding his skepticism about climate change. NASA missions form the backbone of federal data collection system tracking the planet's changing climate.
During Bridenstine's confirmation hearing in 2017 before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Nelson said the job of NASA administrator should not be held by a politician.
“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent, and is a skilled executive,” he said. “This committee has heard me say many times: NASA is not political. The leader of NASA should not be political. The leader of NASA should not be bipartisan; the leader of NASA should be nonpartisan.”
Nelson, 78, was raised in Brevard County, Florida, — home to Kennedy Space Center — and represented the Space Coast in the state Legislature and U.S. House. He was first elected to the Senate in 2000, but lost a bid for a fourth term to Rick Scott in 2018.
As a senator, Nelson was a member of the Space and Science subcommittee. By 2019, both Nelson and Bridenstine had made up and the NASA administrator asked the former senator to join NASA Advisory Committee.
In 1986, Nelson became the second sitting member of Congress to travel into space as the payload specialist on Space Shuttle Columbia's STS-61 mission.
Contributing: Michael Collins