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Biden to tap former Senator Bill Nelson as NASA chief

If confirmed, the former senator from Florida would helm NASA’s return to the Moon

Bill Nelson Photo by Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call

President Biden has tapped former Democratic Senator Bill Nelson for NASA administrator, according to three people familiar with the decision. Nelson, a politically experienced ally of the administration, would command the space agency as it races to return humans to the Moon, bolsters climate research, and expands its reliance on a flourishing commercial space industry.

A former congressman and three-term US senator from Florida, Nelson would succeed former President Trump’s NASA chief, Jim Bridenstine, whose past experience in Congress proved key in rallying support for the Artemis program, an ambitious campaign to use the Moon as a stepping stone for future astronaut missions to Mars.

Senate and NASA staffers who were informally briefed this week on Biden’s decision were told that a formal announcement on Nelson’s nomination would come later this week, three sources said, speaking under anonymity to discuss private conversations before the announcement is made. Former astronaut Pam Melroy is being considered for Nelson’s deputy, one of the sources said.

Rumors that Biden was considering Nelson to lead NASA had been swirling openly among space industry circles for roughly a month, but it wasn’t until this week that the White House and NASA cemented the choice. The decision comes nearly two months after Biden took office and as the White House remains silent on rolling out any space policy agenda while it focuses instead on more pressing issues, like vaccinating Americans from the coronavirus. In the past, new presidents have spent several months mulling their NASA nomination.

Nelson represented Florida’s Space Coast as a state legislator in the 1970s and championed NASA through his time in Congress. In 1986, he became the second sitting member of Congress to fly to space, riding aboard Space Shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist. The centrist Democrat served three terms in the Senate until losing his bid for reelection in 2018 to former Florida Gov. Rick Scott.

As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee that oversees NASA, Nelson laid into then-nominee Bridenstine during his confirmation hearings, criticizing his record on climate change and stressing that a politician shouldn’t run NASA. “This committee has heard me say many times: NASA is not political,” Nelson said. “The leader of NASA should not be political.” Bridenstine was eventually confirmed on a party-line vote, and he used his political savvy to win bipartisan support for the Artemis program.

Biden’s choice to tap Nelson has prompted mixed reactions in the space industry, with both optimism and dismay over the former senator’s past space policy stances. Some had hoped Biden would pick a woman to lead NASA, which has only been led by men in the past. Other people considered for the role included Melroy and Ellen Stofan, the director of the National Air and Space Museum, two people familiar with internal personnel discussions said. Stofan accepted a different position earlier this month as the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Science and Research.

Sen. Marco Rubio, who was Nelson’s Republican colleague from Florida, was pleased to hear Biden’s decision for NASA administrator, saying in a statement “I cannot think of anyone better to lead NASA than Bill Nelson.”

“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. I look forward to supporting Bill’s swift confirmation, and working with him in the years to come,” Sen. Rubio said.

As a senator, Nelson railed against the cancellation of NASA’s Shuttle program and was a leading voice in Congress, pushing to protect thousands of Shuttle-related jobs on Florida’s Space Coast. Those jobs were ultimately lost when the program retired in 2011. Many of those workers eventually went to work on NASA’s new massive rocket called the Space Launch System (SLS), a multibillion-dollar program that Nelson staunchly supported.

Now, his past support for SLS could be a flashpoint in his road to Senate confirmation as an increasingly competitive commercial space industry grapples with his nomination. SLS, a congressionally mandated backbone of NASA’s Artemis Moon program, is the most powerful NASA rocket since the Apollo program’s Saturn V. But its development has been marred by delays and billions in cost overruns, while privately built rockets from companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin promise cheaper but less powerful rides to space.

The first launch of NASA astronauts on a privately built capsule from SpaceX last year, under the Commercial Crew Program, was a watershed moment for the agency that reinforced a new model of space contracting, in which NASA buys astronaut rides and space services as a customer instead of an owner.

Whether NASA should continue that model across other areas of the agency’s spaceflight programs is a key question Nelson will face once his nomination is finalized by the White House.

Update March 18, 5:45PM ET: This story was updated to include a statement from Sen. Marco Rubio.