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Biden To Nominate Former Sen. Bill Nelson Of Florida As NASA Head

Then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., with Sen. Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol in 2018. Nelson has been chosen to lead NASA.
J. Scott Applewhite
Then-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., with Sen. Chuck Schumer at the U.S. Capitol in 2018. Nelson has been chosen to lead NASA.

President Biden on Friday announced his intent to nominate former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida to the top job at NASA. Nelson, who spent six days in orbit aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, would replace Jim Bridenstine, who resigned in January to make way for the new administration's appointee.

Nelson represented Orlando and Florida's Space Coast in the U.S. House of Representatives before eventually moving to the Senate in 2001, where he served three terms before then-Gov. Rick Scott defeated him in 2018. He was the ranking member on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Nelson is one of three people to have flown on the space shuttle while serving in Congress.

"Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint, including passing the landmark NASA bill of 2010," the White House said in a statement. "That law set NASA on its present dual course of both government and commercial missions."

Nelson, shown in his official NASA portrait, flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
Nelson, shown in his official NASA portrait, flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.

In August, amid speculation about who might become the next NASA administrator should then-candidate Biden win the White House, Nelson said he had a handful of recommendations, "and my recommendation would not include myself."

The former senator, who still must win Senate confirmation, would assume the helm at a critical juncture for NASA. The agency is pressing ahead with plans to put humans back on the moon for the first time since 1972 and, eventually, to land astronauts on Mars.

There are concerns that the ambitious schedule for the Artemis program to put "the first woman and next man on the Moon by 2024," might slip under the Biden administration. However, speaking in August, Nelson said that he believed Biden, as a fellow space buff, wanted to see the project through.

"The bottom line why Joe Biden will do this is because Joe Biden like most Americans is absolutely fascinated with spaceflight," Nelson said, according to Florida Today. "And the American people still associate the space program with humans getting on a rocket and flying in space."

NASA's back-to-the-moon program comes as other nations, particularly China, have been increasingly flexing their space muscles. China has been honing an ambitious human spaceflight capability in recent years, and earlier this month it announced a joint effort with Russia to construct a lunar research station, which could include a moon base on the surface.

Nelson, as a U.S. representative and later senator, earned a reputation as a pragmatic moderate. Beginning in the late 1970s, he became a key champion of NASA through the agency's post-Apollo years, when it struggled with generally shrinking budgets and shifting priorities.

In the 1980s, NASA, hoping to bolster support in Congress, began planning to send nonprofessionals into space. Nelson raised his hand.

Writing in his 1988 memoir, Mission, Nelson said, "If I was going to speak about the space program accurately in Congress, I wanted to feel what the astronauts felt."

So he began preparing by running four miles a day and working out in the gym. Nelson, sitting in the back seat of an Air Force F-16, even convinced the jet fighter's pilot to pull nine times gravity so the then-congressman could see what it felt like.

In 1985, NASA selected him to fly as a payload specialist on STS-61-C, which launched in January 1986, nine months after Republican Sen. Jake Garn's flight aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Nelson's flight on Columbia was the last shuttle mission before the Challenger exploded shortly after launch, killing seven astronauts, including would-be teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe. Columbia, too, was ultimately destroyed on reentry in 2003, with the loss of another seven astronauts.

The only other sitting member of Congress to fly in space was former Mercury astronaut Sen. John Glenn, D-Ohio, in 1998 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. At 77, he was also the oldest person to fly in space. Glenn died in 2016.

Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, was confirmed by the Senate in 2018 amid objections from both Nelson and initially GOP Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

"The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician," Nelson said in a written statement to Politico.

Despite that opposition, Bridenstine chose Nelsonto join the NASA Advisory Council in 2019.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.