The rumored nomination of former senator Bill Nelson for the top job at NASA is drawing criticism from space industry insiders who view the Florida Democrat as a dinosaur and question his commitment to moving the agency forward.
First reported by Breaking Defense, the rumor would infuriate many in the industry if true. Simon Porter, an astrophysicist on the New Horizons mission to Pluto, said on Twitter, "That would be incredibly dumb … Nelson represents everything NASA needs to get away from."
Nelson is "pushing hard" to become NASA administrator by leveraging his personal relationship with Biden, according to Ars Technica. But critics are pushing back, describing the 78-year-old ex-senator as a relic of the old guard whose track record supporting major in-house projects spells danger for the burgeoning commercial space industry.
Eli Dourado, a researcher at the Center for Growth and Opportunity at Utah State University, said he worries Nelson would take NASA in the wrong direction. "The agency has been at its best when it has worked to create new commercial capabilities that it can then leverage in its science mission. Nelson has made a career of opposing this approach, instead favoring big-dollar programs that create jobs in Florida." One space insider who asked to remain nameless said, "Nelson would be a disaster."
But Nelson does have a long history with NASA. As a congressman in 1986, he secured a nonprofessional spot on a space shuttle mission, spending six days in orbit. Nelson justified his ride-along in his 1988 memoir Mission: An American Congressman’s Voyage to Space, saying, "If I was going to speak about the space program accurately in Congress, I wanted to feel what the astronauts felt."
Nelson is also closely linked to the Space Launch System (SLS), an expendable launch vehicle widely seen as a major NASA failure. The program was established in 2011 after congressional leaders including Nelson demanded a NASA program to build its own large rocket in exchange for an Obama administration push to open contracts to private companies, the Commercial Crew Program. As part of the deal, Congress required the SLS rocket to be largely built out of old Space Shuttle parts, which protected manufacturing jobs in Nelson’s home state.
More than a decade and $20 billion later, the SLS has yet to launch. A NASA inspector general report in 2019 found rampant cost overruns, performance issues, and "challenges with program management." A December 2020 report from the GAO found NASA’s planned flight Artemis I, which would use the SLS system, was three years behind the schedule set by NASA in 2014 to measure performance. The Artemis program will purportedly land the first woman and the next man on the Moon by 2024.
SLS has been panned in the space industry as a boondoggle. "We don't need a rocket made of re-tread space shuttle parts," said one space insider who asked not to be identified. Its close competitor, SpaceX’s Starship, is on track to deliver larger payloads to space at much lower costs. On Monday, space company Rocket Lab announced its new large reusable rocket. "Other than small launch vehicles, there's no reason to be developing a fully expendable rocket after the year 2022. They're obsolete," said Joel Sercel, founder of space company Trans Astronautica.
Nelson would also be presiding over an agency whose greatest successes came when its average employee age was substantially lower than it is today. In 2018, a GAO report found that over half of NASA’s workforce was over 50 years old. By contrast, the average age of the mission control room that landed Apollo 11 was 28. Multiple space insiders suggested Nelson himself is out of touch with the new generation driving space innovation. Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator under Obama, said, "now is not the time to turn back the clock at NASA."
In 2017, Nelson opposed President Trump’s pick for NASA administrator, former representative Jim Bridenstine, saying, "The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." Bridenstine, who stepped down in January, is now viewed as one of the best NASA administrators in decades.
Nelson’s nomination would cut against previous speculation that the Biden administration was looking to nominate a woman to the role. Eric Stallmer of Voyager Space Holdings told Politico "there are some fantastic women candidates out there that I think should be highly considered." Two of those candidates, Ellen Stofan and Pam Melroy, served on Biden’s eight-person NASA transition team.