Biden to name former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson and space program champion to head NASA

WASHINGTON – Former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who once rode a space shuttle and was a leading proponent of the U.S. space program while in Congress, will be named Friday as NASA’s next administrator.

The expected announcement comes after weeks of speculation that President Joe Biden would nominate his former Senate colleague to lead the agency as it pursues a return to the moon this decade and continues its ambitious quest to send humans to Mars. Nelson’s nomination was confirmed by a Senate source who is not authorized to speak on the record.

The announcement comes at a critical juncture for NASA as it pushes to make the deadline to return humans to the moon by 2024 –— the year selected by President Donald Trump when he took office. Many industry analysts have suggested Biden will push back the deadline to 2028, which was the original timeline set by NASA.

On July 2, 2012, U.S. Senator Bill Nelson addressed an audience in Kennedy Space Center's Operations and Checkout Building high bay for an event marking the arrival of NASA's first space-bound Orion capsule in Florida. (Photo: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia as a member of Congress in 1986,  has a long history with Biden; they served together in the Senate for eight years. Both men also campaigned for each other.

Nelson did not respond to a request for comment, instead referring, through an aide, all questions to NASA. A NASA spokeswoman declined to comment. And White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not confirm Nelson’s nomination when she was asked about it Thursday during a press briefing.

“I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have any personnel announcements to make today,” she said. “It seems like a cool job, though.”

Nelson will have to win Senate confirmation before he can assume the reins of the agency.

In Congress, Nelson was one of the most influential members when it came to space policy.

In 2010, he joined then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, in co-sponsoring landmark NASA legislation that remade the future of the space program.

The new law called for a dual track: commercial companies would take over low-Earth orbit tasks such as transporting astronauts and supplies to the International Space Station while NASA would focus on the moon and inter-planetary missions.

This illustration made available by NASA depicts how the Ingenuity helicopter is expected to launch on Mars after the Perseverance rover lands. It will be the first aircraft to attempt controlled flight on another planet. (Photo: J. Krohn/NASA via AP)

That vision came to fruition in May when a private company, SpaceX, successfully delivered two astronauts to the space station marking the first time a commercial company sent humans to the ISS.

If approved by Congress, Nelson will be NASA’s 14th administrator, succeeding Jim Bridenstine, a former congressman from Oklahoma appointed by Trump. Bridenstine oversaw NASA during the historic SpaceX launches of astronauts to the space station.

Nelson helped delay Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator for months over previous statements the Oklahoma lawmaker had made regarding his skepticism about climate change. NASA missions form the backbone of federal data collection system tracking the planet’s changing climate.

Nelson, 78, was raised in Brevard County — home to Kennedy Space Center — and represented the Space Coast in the state Legislature and U.S. House. He was first elected to the Senate in 2000, but lost a bid for a fourth term to Rick Scott in 2018.

As a senator, Nelson was a member of the Space and Science subcommittee. By 2019, both Nelson and Bridenstine had made up and the NASA administrator asked the former senator to join NASA Advisory Committee.

In 1986, Nelson became the second sitting member of Congress to travel into space as the payload specialist on Space Shuttle Columbia’s STS-61 mission.

Contributing: Michael Collins

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