The daily beast
NASA veterans baffled by Biden’s choice of Bill Nelson as lead agency
Tom Williams / Getty President Joe Biden is nominating his longtime friend Bill Nelson to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), finally settling months of speculation. For some, Nelson is a puzzling choice for a tough job. A former space shuttle passenger who later served three terms as a United States senator representing Florida, Nelson, 78, is not without political experience. He has strong personal ties to Biden and the space industry, but is an elderly white man at a time when many space professionals are clamoring for younger female leadership. Also, there is a kind of black mark on Nelson in certain space circles. Some veterans of the US space program still vaguely associate the former senator with one of NASA’s greatest tragedies: the 1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion. Nelson flew the shuttle mission directly before the doomed launch of the Challenger, and his presence on that earlier shuttle. forced NASA to reorganize the crew roster for future missions, including the Challenger. Nelson’s nomination “kind of blows the mind,” John Logsdon, former NASA adviser and former director of the George Washington University Institute for Space Policy, told The Daily Beast. When Biden selected a record number of women for top positions in his administration, many observers assumed that he would also nominate a woman to head NASA. There is no shortage of good candidates, including former space shuttle pilot Pam Melroy and Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. . “I’m disappointed that we don’t have more diverse leadership in the role,” Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in Indiana, told The Daily Beast. Horgan helped NASA select the landing site for NASA’s new Perseverance Mars rover, which arrived on the red planet last month and is one of the high-profile missions on NASA’s docket – landing rovers on Mars. , launch a new space telescope and get ready. powerful rockets and other hardware to return astronauts to the moon. It might comfort critics a bit that Biden is reportedly planning to appoint Melroy as deputy administrator, which could prepare her to lead the agency in the future. NASA did not respond to a request for comment. Their disappointment at the missed opportunity for female leadership aside, many insiders of the space admitted that Nelson should be a proper manager. “I’m sure Nelson will do a good job,” Matt Siegler, an astronomer at the Arizona-based Institute for Planetary Sciences, told The Daily Beast. Nelson is not a scientist. Rather, he is a career politician who has consistently championed science throughout his decades in public service. In that sense, you are not alone. Former President Donald Trump’s former NASA administrator, former Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, was a businessman before being elected to the United States House of Representatives for three terms, but many administrators before Bridenstine have been engineers, scientists or veteran astronauts. Charles Bolden, former President Barack Obama’s former NASA chief, logged nearly 700 hours in space, and even commanded Nelson on a space shuttle outing in early 1986. Michael Griffin, NASA administration under the Former President George W. Bush, is a physicist and engineer. Despite his lack of science education or deep direct experience at NASA, former Senator Nelson undoubtedly loves the space agency. “Nelson has been a longtime NASA fan and supporter,” Roger Launius, NASA’s chief historian before his retirement in 2016, told The Daily Beast. NASA rover survives 7 minutes of terror, lands on Mars in search of ancient life. One of NASA’s riskiest and possibly most important initiatives: a long-delayed and massively overbudgeted effort to develop a massive new booster rocket capable of sending astronauts and their hardware to the Moon … and ultimately to Mars. As a senator, Nelson was one of them. from leading proponents of the Space Launch System, which takes old space shuttle rockets and refits and upgrades them for future missions. “This allows NASA to get out beyond lower Earth orbit and begin exploring the skies, which is the job NASA has always been tasked with,” Nelson said when he presented the SLS design in 2011. It wouldn’t cost more. of $ 11.5 billion and would be ready for its first test launch in 2017. But the old rockets turned out to need a lot more work than Nelson and his allies, including then-NASA Administrator Bolden, anticipated. SLS has cost $ 17 billion so far and it hasn’t flown yet. When news broke of Nelson’s expected nomination, engineers at a NASA facility in Mississippi were busy preparing SLS rockets for a critical ground test. As NASA administrator, Nelson could play a key role in protecting and finalizing the SLS project and in positioning the agency to eventually send astronauts back to the moon and then to Mars, but it is Nelson’s ties to the astronauts in the past are the biggest blemishes on your reputation. After receiving training as a payload specialist, Nelson flew the space shuttle Columbia under the command of then-astronaut Bolden. Nelson was a Florida congressman for three terms at the time. For NASA, getting Nelson to join Columbia had obvious benefits, as it helped cement ties between the agency and the House of Representatives. The space agency was pushing Congress to pass a law designating NASA as the sole space launch agency, in order to avoid an increasingly assertive Pentagon, but coordinating Nelson’s program proved difficult. When NASA finally placed Nelson on the Columbia crew, it sent one of the existing crew members, engineer Greg Jarvis, on the next shuttle flight, scheduled to take off a few days after the Columbia landed in late January. 1986. The next shuttle was the Challenger. It exploded on takeoff, killing all seven of the crew. Nelson said he was horrified by the Challenger incident. “My mind did not want to accept what my eyes saw,” he recalled years later. “I kept waiting for the Challenger to emerge from the smoke.” But James Oberg, who was NASA’s mission controller from 1975 to 1997, is still angry at Nelson for Jarvis’s death. “NASA just put it [Nelson] on a mission to buy your vote in a crucial budget dispute in Congress, “Oberg told The Daily Beast. The Challenger explosion made the issue moot. NASA grounded its surviving shuttles for two years, leaving Congress no choice but to let the military buy its own rockets. “Consequently, plans for a NASA monopoly on launch services were canceled, so Nelson’s presence was rendered useless anyway, too late to save Jarvis’s life,” Oberg said. Logsdon said it is unfair to blame Nelson for Jarvis’ death. Nelson “was just a passenger on a flight,” Logsdon said. NASA shuffles and rearranges crews all the time. It is impossible to guarantee the safety of a crew in a single spacecraft. Nelson’s shuttle Columbia ended up crashing years later in 2003, killing all seven people on board. Most of the space connoisseurs The Daily Beast spoke to didn’t even mention the Challenger controversy. For many space professionals, Challenger, and the entire shuttle program, which ended in 2011, is ancient history. Upon hearing the news of Nelson’s nomination, most of them reacted with resignation. Chris Impey, an astronomer at the University of Arizona, told The Daily Beast that he was ambivalent. “A woman would have been a good choice and / or someone more visionary, but Nelson is unlikely to get angry or cause controversy.” Will Biden put the brakes on Trump’s moon race? Read more at The Daily Beast. Featured news in your inbox every day. Register now! Beast Daily Membership: Beast Inside delves into the stories that matter to you. Learn more.