According to leaks to the press yesterday, the Biden administration is considering hiring former Florida senator Bill Nelson to become NASA’s administrator.
That the DC rumor mill is abuzz with this story suggests that the White House is putting out a trial balloon to see the reaction to such a choice. At first glance Nelson appears a good pick. Before he was defeated in his last election by Republican Rick Scott (R-Florida), he had been one of Congress’s biggest advocates for space exploration and NASA. He had even flown as an astronaut on the shuttle back in 1986, just weeks before Challenger broke up during launch.
However, there are several issues that would make this a very poor choice. First, Nelson’s advocacy for NASA was centered on funding big space, not private enterprise. Nelson was one of those legislators who mandated the construction of SLS, and resisted for years NASA’s new commercial space effort.
Second, Nelson’s last years in Congress revealed that he had lost touch with some of the basic concepts of freedom and property rights that founded the United States. For example, he was one of a group of bi-partisan senators that in 2018 proposed a law that would have denied Americans their second, fifth, sixth, and seventh amendment rights by proactively forbidding them the right to buy firearms merely because a Washington bureaucrat decided to put them on a no-fly list. The law was a mindless emotional response to a terrible school shooting that killed a lot of children, and its proposal illustrated that its sponsors were no longer thinking, but emoting blindly.
That Nelson joined in and was willing to give the government so much power does not make him the best choice to lead NASA as it tries to become just another customer being served by an independent robust and free market of space companies.
Finally, and maybe most important, Nelson is 78 years old. In his last years in office he showed his age. I watched him struggle as both a speaker and legislator during hearings in 2017. His enthusiasm for space was unchecked, but his sharpness was gone.
If chosen to run NASA he will make a good bookend for his president, who has also shown clear signs of failing mental health. Under such weak leadership, it will be the bureaucracy that will rule, and the track record of NASA’s bureaucracy has not been good. It resisted for decades ceding power to the private sector, wanting instead to maintain control over all rocket and spacecraft development, including what those rockets and spacecraft would do. Only in the past decade has that power been wrested from its grasp.
Given power again I expect it to use that power to return to its old ways and squelch the emerging free and competitive aerospace market. This will not be good for either the exploration of space, or for America itself.
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