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Biden Taps Controversial Ex-Senator to Be NASA Administrator

Bill Nelson under fire for backing rocket program plagued by delays, cost overruns

Bill Nelson / Getty Images
• March 18, 2021 12:00 pm

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President Joe Biden will nominate former Democratic senator Bill Nelson to be NASA administrator, a choice that is likely to face pushback from many in the space industry who view him as a dinosaur committed to old-school rockets in an era of increasingly cheap, modern launch vehicles. The news was first reported by The Verge.

As a senator, Nelson lobbied for the Space Launch System (SLS), an in-house launch vehicle for NASA that has been dogged by cost overruns and engineering failures. The SLS is now multiple years behind schedule, while a new generation of space companies claims they will soon be able to deliver larger payloads for far less. Nelson's nomination signals that the agency may spend less time on such commercial development.

As reported by the Washington Free Beacon, researchers and some space startups fear Nelson would slow NASA's transition to the modern space era, arguing his support for SLS is the product of a 20th century mentality. They point to the burgeoning supply chain of reusable rockets as examples of innovation the private sector can provide in partnership with NASA, and argue his defense of SLS was largely motivated by protecting the manufacturing jobs it provided in his home state of Florida.

Defenders of Nelson say the SLS is currently the best vehicle to take Americans to the Moon and beyond, and that the Moon landing occurred through government-designed technology rather than public-private partnerships.

In 2017, Nelson led the Senate charge against Jim Bridenstine, Donald Trump's nominee for the position. At the time, Nelson told Politico, "The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." Bridenstine received bipartisan acclaim for his management of the agency, with several sources calling him the best administrator since the 1960s. A career politician himself, Nelson has campaigned for Biden in the past, and Biden stumped for Nelson during his unsuccessful 2018 Senate run.

In private, Nelson has been at times harshly critical of commercial space companies. In 2011, after Elon Musk announced the development of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, Nelson reportedly told NASA officials to "keep your boy in line." SpaceX's super-heavy lift launch vehicles directly compete with the SLS, which Nelson lobbied aggressively for in 2011.

SLS advocates say the United States should retain ownership of the intellectual property needed to get to the moon and Mars, and point to the manufacturing jobs it creates. Jim Maser, an executive at Aerojet Rocketdyne, which manufactures parts for the SLS, told the Washington Free Beacon that government and the private sector can both play a role in space. "For example, U.S. commercial companies provide access to low-Earth orbit while NASA leads the way in deep space exploration." 

On Monday, however, Ars Technica reported the Biden administration is conducting an internal review of the SLS’s affordability. The rocket is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion for each launch and has already cost over $20 billion to build.

Will Rinehart, a researcher at the Center for Growth and Opportunity, said, "If Nelson is confirmed to lead NASA, it's all but waving the white flag on space." Rinehart pointed out that Nelson has been a key backer of NASA's traditional procurement methods, which have been largely responsible for the agency's exorbitant costs per rocket relative to commercial companies.

Late last month, NASA quietly upped the prices it charges commercial users of the International Space Station, angering customers who had not been informed. The move suggests NASA sees a spike in demand by the industry, which is developing reusable rockets that would open access to space significantly.

But the Biden administration's emphasis in public messaging has been on continuing scientific research, not on public-private partnerships. The 2020 Democratic Party platform emphasized strengthening observation missions to assess climate change from space.

"Managing the Earth's ability to sustain human life and biodiversity will likely, in my view, dominate a civil space agenda for a Biden-Harris administration," said Lori Garver, the Obama administration's deputy NASA administrator. The administration does plan to continue the Trump push to land a human mission on the Moon, although it is not expected to push for the original 2024 deadline.

Former Republican congressman and current space lobbyist Robert Walker said he hoped for continuity in NASA's goals, stressing the necessity of keeping the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, a successful public-private partnership run by NASA. He expressed qualified support, saying, "Bill Nelson may be the right guy to keep NASA stabilized during an administration that's not particularly focused on space."

For younger space advocates, maintaining those programs is not enough. "NASA's contracting system direly needs revamping," said Rinehart. "The White House, and moreover the Senate, should look for someone who understands the space race of this century, not the space race from the last one."

NASA did not return a request for comment.