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Senate Confirms Bill Nelson for NASA Administrator

By Rachel Jewett | April 30, 2021

      Former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in his Senate confirmation hearing for NASA administrator in April 2021. Photo:

      President Biden’s pick for NASA administrator — former Florida Senator Bill Nelson — was unanimously confirmed by the Senate on April 29.  Nelson becomes NASA’s 14th administrator, succeeding former Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine, another political appointee. Steve Jurczyk has served as acting administrator since Bridenstine stepped down after the inauguration. 

      “I am honored by the President’s nomination and the Senate vote,” Nelson said. “I will try to merit that trust. Onward and upward!”

      Nelson served on space committees in both houses of Congress while he was a lawmaker. He is also known for being the second member of congress to travel to space, as he was a payload specialist on a Columbia Space Shuttle mission in January 1986. This mission was the last successful space shuttle flight prior to the Challenger accident. 

      During his confirmation hearing, Nelson was questioned about NASA’s recent decision to give SpaceX the sole contract to send astronauts to the Moon on the SpaceX Starship rocket and to continue development of the first commercial human lunar lander. Nelson backed up NASA’s previous comments and committed to competition in the upcoming recurring landing services contracts for the Moon. 

      Nelson was a member of the Senate when former Administrator Bridenstine was nominated, and Nelson was very critical of President Trump choosing a political appointee.

      In a 2018 interview with Via Satellite, Nelson argued that a NASA administrator should be free of political baggage and must understand the complex technical issues involved in human spaceflight safety decisions. Yet during his confirmation hearing, Nelson said Bridenstine did a “remarkable job under difficult circumstances” as NASA Administrator. 

      The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) congratulated Nelson on his confirmation. “We see significant opportunities for NASA to continue its important mission pushing the boundaries of space, aeronautics, and research and development on many fronts. Under Administrator Nelson’s leadership, we anticipate NASA will benefit from his extensive background and many bipartisan relationships as a former lawmaker,” the group said in a statement. 

      The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration praised the confirmation as well, calling Nelson a “tireless advocate for NASA and the entire space industry.” 

      The Senate still needs to confirm Biden’s pick for deputy administrator, former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy.

      Steve Jurczyk, who has lead NASA as its acting administrator since January, welcomed Nelson to the agency in a statement issued after on Thursday’s confirmation hearing.

      “It’s been an amazing year for NASA and our commercial and international partners, and I look forward to working with Bill and the Biden-Harris Administration to build on the incredible momentum we’ve built so far,” said Jurczyk. “It has been an honor to serve as acting administrator, but it’s the NASA workforce that makes the agency one-of-a-kind. Thank you for all you do to advance NASA’s critical missions.”