A politician who said politicians shouldn’t run NASA wants to run NASA

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Enlarge / Then Rep. Bill Nelson (D-Fla., Bottom) underwent zero gravity training aboard a KC-135 along with other astronauts-in-training in 1985. To his right is teacher Christa McAuliffe, who died along with seven other crew members in the Challenger disaster.

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On Monday, a rumor that has simmered in Washington for several weeks surfaced: that former US Senator Bill Nelson, a Democrat from Florida, is one of the leading candidates to become NASA’s next administrator. .

The publication Breaking Defense publicly shared the rumor on Twitter, noting that Nelson has a “strong” relationship with President Biden and understands how Congress works. Nelson, 78, lost his bid for re-election to the Senate in 2018. He had served six terms as a member of the House of Representatives and three terms in the upper house.

Two sources told Ars that Nelson is pushing hard to become a manager and is taking advantage of his friendly relationship with Biden to do so. “This is more than a rumor,” said a source. However, it is not a closed deal either, as after the rumor emerged, there was a pushback in the space community over the appointment of Nelson to the position, who has a long and sometimes controversial history in the space community.

Simon Porter, a New Horizons mission astrophysicist who speaks openly on Twitter, perhaps best summed up some of this anguish. writing, “This is literally ‘Trump putting oil executives in charge of the EPA’ bad and corrupt levels. It has to be pushed by lobbyists in favor of SLS contractors, and if Biden is even considering it, he is listening to lobbyists. , not the professionals. “

Nelson the astronaut

Nelson will certainly bring a lot of experience and familiarity to the role of NASA administrator. In addition to representing the Kennedy Space Center in Congress for decades, he flew as a payload specialist on the space shuttle. Columbia in January 1986.

However, much of the space industry saw Nelson’s mission as an influential politician who made his way on the space shuttle for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. In his book Riding rockets, former NASA astronaut Mike Mullane colorfully recounts the antics of Nelson, whom Mullane said he was looking for any attempt at favorable publicity.

“I wanted to be a contributing crew member and do something really important,” Mullane wrote. “There was just one problem. None of the principal investigators of any of the experiments manifested in the mission wanted Nelson to be around their team. They had a chance to fly their experiments, they had been working with the astronauts for months on how to operate the equipment. And I didn’t want a politician without technical knowledge to step in at the last minute and screw things up.

Eventually Nelson earned a dismissive nickname from his fellow crew members for the role he eventually played in the shuttle mission:Ballast.

Space launch system

More recently, Nelson played a key role in NASA’s development of the expensive Space Launch System rocket. Early in his presidency, Barack Obama sought to cancel NASA’s efforts to build a large rocket, the Ares V, and see if the private sector could build launch vehicles more efficiently. This would free up NASA’s budget for technology development and other purposes, as companies like SpaceX began to show promise.

Nelson joined key Republicans in opposing this plan and gathered votes against it. As a result, NASA was ordered to build another large rocket, the Space Launch System, as a replacement for the Ares V. (More than a decade and $ 20 billion later, the SLS rocket has yet to launch.) Nelson also led the charge to reduce funding for the commercial crew, NASA’s initiative for companies like SpaceX and Boeing to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station after the space shuttle’s retirement.

Working with Senator Richard Shelby, an Alabama Republican, Nelson saw that the commercial crew program received less than half the money the White House sought for commercial crew from 2011 to 2014. Instead, Congress invested this money in the SLS rocket.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Nelson continued to criticize NASA for its support of commercial ventures, particularly SpaceX. After SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced the development of the Falcon Heavy rocket, a low-cost competitor to the SLS, Nelson called on NASA officials for their support of the company. Keep “your boy” at bay, he told them, according to two sources.

Not a politician

In 2017, Nelson also led the opposition to Jim Bridenstine becoming NASA administrator. Later, serving as a senior member on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which oversees NASA, Nelson said Bridenstine was too partisan and political to lead NASA. He also accused Bridenstine of not having the experience to do so.

“The head of NASA should be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson said of Bridenstine, then a two-term congressman from Oklahoma.

Bridenstine would become a respected administrator of the space agency, rarely displaying anything more than bipartisanship as he advanced the space agency’s efforts in human exploration and scientific research.

There is now concern among scientists that Nelson does not share Bridenstine’s enthusiasm for advancing the agency as a whole or for scientific exploration. This is because, as a Florida congressman, Nelson generally only sought funding for the Kennedy Space Center and programs like the SLS rocket, which used space shuttle-era technology and supported local jobs.

When asked what she thought of Nelson as a potential NASA administrator, Lori Garver, who served as deputy administrator of the space agency during the Obama administration, was not very enthusiastic. “Now is not the time to turn back the clock at NASA,” he said.

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