President Biden’s pick for NASA administrator, former Sen. Bill Nelson, breezed through his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, as expected. Facing questions from his “old buddies” about NASA’s commercial partnerships, climate change, and workforce diversity, Nelson’s hearing was uneventful and garnered bipartisan praise. He backed the agency’s current plan to send its first crew of astronauts to the Moon on a SpaceX rocket and emphasized NASA’s role in studying climate change.
Just over a month after being tapped by Biden for NASA chief, Nelson told lawmakers he supported the president’s 2022 summary budget request for NASA and defended the $2.3 billion it set out for the agency’s Earth sciences wing — a 15 percent increase from the prior year. “It’s a very important increase. You can’t mitigate climate change unless you measure it, and that’s NASA’s expertise,” he said. “Understanding our planet gives us the means to better protect it.”
In his testimony and remarks to lawmakers, Nelson, a former congressman and a three-term US senator from Florida, made “constancy of purpose” his priority if confirmed by the Senate. He plans to maintain the moonshot momentum that brewed under the Trump administration, while upping support for climate-focused objectives championed by Biden, including “climate change, educating and inspiring a diverse STEM workforce, building back better through innovation, and using space to create and strengthen global alliances and ensure U.S. global leadership.”
The hearing came less than a week after NASA picked Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build the country’s first human lunar lander since 1972, one of the most significant awards from the agency in years. The sole award was a surprise to many who expected NASA to pick two providers, either Blue Origin or Dynetics, who had also been developing rival landing systems.
Asked by senators where Nelson stands on NASA’s commercial partnerships and the Artemis program — the Trump administration’s agenda to land humans on the Moon by 2024 — Nelson supported the program and the agency’s decision to award SpaceX a sole lunar lander contract to mature Starship for NASA’s first two missions to the Moon (one uncrewed, the other crewed). Based on what he read in the news about SpaceX’s award, he said, NASA still has a shot at getting to the moon by 2024.
“I think you may be pleased that we’re gonna see that timetable try to be adhered to, but recognize that with some sobering reality that space is hard,” Nelson said. Without naming SpaceX, he said NASA’s current “awardee” for the lander means NASA should try to stick to its 2024 date, a goal set by then-Vice President Mike Pence in 2019 that has been widely viewed as unrealistic.
That 2024 date wasn’t realistic, Biden’s transition team found, because of funding shortfalls from Congress. But that was when NASA was still expected to pick two lunar lander providers. Now with Starship as NASA’s initial ride to the Moon, which came at a price far lower than SpaceX’s rivals, agency officials might publicly stick with the 2024 goal.
Nelson’s support for the sole-source selection seemed reserved only for the initial phase of NASA’s human landing system program. NASA plans to invite more companies to compete for future lunar lander contracts. Asked if other elements of Artemis, like space suits, should be built by multiple companies instead of just one, Nelson said, “I do, senator. And competition is always better than sole-sourcing.”
Throughout the hearing, Nelson sprinkled praise for Jim Bridenstine, the former NASA chief whose past experience as a congressman proved crucial to rallying support for Trump’s Artemis program. Nelson railed against Bridenstine for being a politician during his confirmation hearing in 2018 but switched gears on Wednesday. “Jim had tremendous success in growing political and public support for NASA, particularly around the Artemis program,” Nelson said in written testimony. “If confirmed, I look forward to continuing to work with him and will seek his advice.”
The Senate Commerce Committee is slated to vote on sending Nelson’s nomination to the Senate on April 28th, and it’s all but certain he’ll clinch confirmation. Wednesday’s hearing was a “total love fest,” one NASA source said, echoing characterizations made on Twitter. “I think you are seeing exactly why Joe nominated him.”
In an interview with The Verge, Bridenstine said he expects that Nelson “will sail through the confirmation process,” given his support among Republican senators. “If there are members of the Senate who are considering not supporting him, I am very happy to say I think that’s a mistake. I think he has all the tools necessary to be a great NASA administrator,” Bridenstine said.
Republican Sens. Ted Cruz, who held up two of Biden’s nominees in March, and Rick Scott, who defeated Nelson in his 2018 reelection bid, made the bipartisan vibes clear at the end of the hearing. Scott said, “It’s nice to see a Floridian nominated for NASA.”
Cruz, smiling, said to Nelson: “There are not many Biden nominees about whom I am enthusiastic, and your nomination is a notable exception to that.”
Photography by Joey Roulette / The Verge