Biden nominates former senator Bill Nelson for NASA administrator

The Biden administration today announced that it has nominated former Democratic senator Bill Nelson for Florida to be the next NASA administrator.

Nelson was a big proponent of SLS. He also was a big opponent of commercial space for many years, changing his mind only during the last few years in the Senate.

He is also old, 78. Though that age by itself does not guarantee failing mental abilities, the last time I saw Nelson live was during 2017 hearings instigated by senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) related to the Outer Space Treaty. During those hearings he struck me as confused, unaware of the most recent developments in commercial space, and repeatedly struggling to express himself on the simplest topics.

In this sense he will make a great bookend with Joe Biden. In both cases the weak-minded elected official does not run things. Instead, it is the unelected Washington bureaucracy in charge.

How this will impact the growing and successful commercial space market at this moment remains unclear. Within NASA there are two camps, one favoring private enterprise and the other wanting to control it so that NASA decides everything. For the last half of the 20th century through the first decade of the 21st the latter was in charge. In the past decade the former has gained ascendancy.

As a longtime supporter of the latter group, Nelson’s appointment therefore could shift that battle in a way that aborts America’s new private space effort.

Rumors: Biden considering former Senator Bill Nelson for NASA administrator

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.

The federal government’s blank check

Three articles this morning about actions taken by Congress in connection with the budgets for NASA and NOAA illustrate the bankrupt nature of our federal government.

The first story describes how several legislators from the House Appropriations Committee have inserted amendments into their budget bill that will restore a $10 million NASA climate monitoring program that the Trump administration had shut down.

The second story describes how that same budget bill generously funds both NASA and NOAA at levels far above their own requests.
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Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) today expressed concern on the Senate floor over the budget language inserted by Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) that many think will cripple the new commercial manned space companies with high costs and extensive paperwork.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) today expressed concern on the Senate floor over the budget language inserted by Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) that many think will cripple the new commercial manned space companies with high costs and extensive paperwork.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) took to the Senate floor June 18 and tapped the brakes on a powerful appropriator’s plan to subject NASA’s commercial crew program to strict federal accounting standards the agency waived when it solicited bids for crew transportation in November. Nelson, the chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said NASA’s commercial crew program to fly astronauts to and from the international space station aboard commercially designed spacecraft needs “the right mix of oversight and innovation” to start ferrying crews by NASA’s target date of late 2017.

The senior senator from Florida was alluding to a directive Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, personally fought to include in a report appended to a spending bill now awaiting debate on the Senate floor, and which would if signed into law require NASA to either comply with section 15.403-4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or risk a legal mandate to do so. Nelson said he wanted to work with Shelby “as the bill goes to the conference committee to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”

While Nelson was apparently very careful in how he stated his public criticism of Shelby, he also made it clear that he wants the language changed. As the article noted, this gives opponents of Shelby a powerful ally in the Senate. Expect the Shelby language to be significantly watered down.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) on Monday attacked the House version of NASA’s budget that required the agency to make a quick decision on its commercial manned launch company.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida) on Monday attacked the House version of NASA’s budget that required the agency to make a quick decision on its commercial manned launch company.

Nelson faces a difficult election campaign from the right. Thus, I suspect he has realized that he is better off promoting free enterprise than local pork. It is unfortunate that the Republicans in the House haven’t yet realized this.