Rep. Bill Nelson flies on the STS-61C mission in January 1986. Image source: WLRN, Miami/South Florida web site.
In nineteenth-century America, when producers found short acts to supplement the main attractions, nicely filling out an evening’s entertainment, they were said in a rhyming phrase to “fill the bill.”
The White House made official yesterday what had been rumored for a month now.
Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has been nominated to be the next NASA Administrator.
My February 23 blog article made clear what I think of this nomination.
I concluded, “My personal belief is that Senator Nelson is well-intentioned. But he's not the right man for this job.”
Others were involved, but Nelson remains the poster child for the pork-laden process that led to the Space Launch System.
During a March 18, 2010 Senate subcommittee hearing on U.S. commercial space capabilities, Nelson rhetorically posed the question:
What would happen if Congress decided — since the Congress controls the purse strings — that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected by the president over the next five years and use that not for human certification of the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the [research and development] for a heavy-lift vehicle for the Mars program?
Nelson set in motion an either/or battle between what came to be known as “OldSpace” and “NewSpace” for the future of NASA's human spaceflight progam.
A June 2020 estimate for Space Launch System costs. Image source: NASA Office of the Inspector General Infographic.
Here we are a decade later, and NASA has already spent more than $17 billion on SLS, according to a March 2020 NASA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) report.
When he unveiled the SLS design in September 2011, Nelson said, “The cost of the rocket over a five- to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.”
Nelson told Bart Jansen of Florida Today on September 20, 2010, “If we can't do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop.”
That was more than a decade ago. History has proven him wrong. SpaceX, and soon Blue Origin, will have heavy-lift vehicles that will render SLS all but obsolete at a fraction of the cost.
We've all said stupid things we've had to live down. But few of us have cost the taxpayers billions of dollars.
Former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, who dueled with Nelson in those either/or days, tweeted on March 18:
To be clear- this is what he said in 2010. He has since said he supports commercial crew. But is this leadership? If he'd had his way, commercial crew wouldn't have existed - just SLS/Orion. The guy who undermined the Dems & bet on the wrong horse gets rewarded? Back to the book!— Lori Garver (@Lori_Garver) March 18, 2021
“The book” refers to a tell-all Lori is writing about events during her Obama administration tenure.
SLS will be the Scarlet Letters that Nelson will wear on his chest for the rest of his political life but, beyond the space policy wonk bubble we live in, Nelson's nomination seems to be universally praised.
My guess is that President Biden sees Nelson as a safe choice.
Biden and Nelson were contemporaries in the Senate. They were both viewed as centrist Democrats, compromisers who reached across the aisle to find a consensus.
Unlike Nelson's NASA Administrator predecessors, Charlie Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, it's unlikely that any serious opposition will arise in the Senate to block Nelson's confirmation. It was Nelson, ironically, who blocked the nomination of President Obama's original choice Steve Isakowitz, in favor of his STS-61C pilot Bolden. Nelson also objected to Bridenstine's nomination, saying that “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive.”
Bridenstine yesterday released a statement endorsing Nelson.
A new President wants to avoid controversy and delay where possible. Biden's priorities ahead include the For the People Act voting reform measure, a big infrastructure bill, and raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. He also has to bring in for a successful landing the battle against COVID-19.
The last thing he needs is a fight over the leader of an agency whose annual spending is less than one percent of the federal budget.
Nelson is two months older than Biden. They're both 78 years old. It's unlikely that Biden will serve more than one term. Vice President Kamala Harris may be the heir apparent.
Although not yet announced, it's been rumored that former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy will be named Nelson's Deputy Administrator. She might be the heir apparent as well.
I think Nelson will serve long enough to get Space Launch System across the finish line, then step down in favor of Melroy. He'll continue the status quo, which will appease the OldSpace crowd in Congress looking to protect the pork flowing to their districts and states.
Of the four Senators, including Nelson, who foisted SLS upon NASA in 2010 to protect OldSpace contractors, only one is left in office, Richard Shelby (R-AL). Shelby has announced he will retire after his term expires in January 2023. His departure will remove major OldSpace clout from the Senate appropriations process.
By then, either SLS will have flown or it will have failed.
When Shelby goes, perhaps Nelson will go as well.
In the meantime, Nelson fills the bill.