NASA’s new Administrator and his love-hate relationship with the ‘New Space Era’

Bill Nelson was sworn in as NASA’s new Administrator earlier this year. With every new political movement in the space industry comes controversy and division. Bill Nelson’s appointment came with many but the biggest has been his relationship with NASA’s use of commercial space companies.

Early controversy on the space coast

In 1986, NASA was searching for outside volunteers for an extraordinary opportunity to fly on board the Columbia space shuttle as a civilian. The 6-day stay in space had a primary mission of conducting microgravity research and deploying the Satcom K1 satellite. A list of contenders was made. And on it was Bill Nelson, the now new NASA administrator who was serving as a Florida congressman at the time.

Along with representing the Florida Space Coast, Nelson just happened to sit on the House committee that oversees the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) budget — giving him a significant leg up on everyone else. Many people inside NASA felt that he strong-armed his way onto the flight and used his position in public office for a trip to space. Nelson’s official mission title was “Payload specialist 1” but members of the crew gave him the unflattering nickname “Ballast”.

SLS, an albatross for NASA

When the shuttle era wrapped up in 2011, human presence aboard the International Space Station (ISS) relied solely on Russia’s three-seat Soyuz spacecraft. The Russian space agency’s willingness to sell these seats to NASA didn’t come without a hefty premium. According to Business Insider, at one point Russia was charging 372% more to launch NASA astronauts than any other international partner.

NASA was once dependent on Russia for transport to and from the ISS. Over time the cost of seats on the Soyuz crew vehicle increased dramatically

It was during this same time that the former Florida congressman and then senator, Bill Nelson was aggressively pushing against using U.S. commercial space vehicles that would significantly lower costs of getting to space. Alternatively, Nelson championed the idea of the space agency building heavy lift vehicles to take astronauts to Earth, Moon, and Mars orbits. He was a key architect of the Space Launch System (SLS), with clear goals of laying the foundation for the next generation of human exploration missions. Nelson fought against the Obama administration’s efforts to partner with private companies instead of backing SLS. He promised that the SLS rocket program would deliver and bring launches back to American soil. At a press conference in 2011 Nelson stated:

 “This rocket is coming in at the cost of what not only what we estimated in the NASA Authorization act, but less,”…“The cost of the rocket over a five to six-year period in the NASA authorization bill was to be no more than $11.5 billion. This costs $10 billion for the rocket.”

More than a decade later, and SLS has run up $20 billion with no first flight in sight. and NASA has had tremendous success working with commercial launch providers since. Thanks to the same programs that Nelson wanted to cut funding to.

A politician who once said politicians shouldn’t run NASA, now runs NASA

In 2017, Bill Nelson led an aggressive opposition against Jim Bridenstine becoming a NASA administrator. At the time serving as the ranking member on the Senate’s Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation, which oversees NASA, Nelson stated that Bridenstine was too political and partisan to run NASA. He also accused Bridenstine for not having enough scientific expertise and knowledge about the space agency. Nelson is quoted saying, “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician”. Bridenstine was then a two-term congressman from Oklahoma. Who only served 5 years in elected office.

Senator Bill Nelson sworn in as NASA Administrator by Vice President Kamala Harris. Credit: NASA

Now Nelson, the current NASA administrator and a former politician like Bridenstine, finds himself in the same boat he was criticizing just a few years back. “Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA Administrator. He has the political clout to work with President Biden..” says Bridenstine, who continues to publicly endorse the administrator despite Nelson’s comments made about him in the past.

The potential change of heart

While Nelson has had a longer history against commercial space companies, in recent years he has seemed to flip sides. After a failed re-election in 2018, Bill Nelson served on NASA’s advisory council during one of the agency’s largest growth within the commercial space market. Since his time on that council, his opinions seem to have swayed, praising the achievements of NASA thanks mostly to commercial companies like SpaceX.

Only time will tell what a term with Nelson as Administrator will do for the agency. The writing is on the wall that NASA’s success is tied to the commercial sector and all signs point to those partnerships continuing. Nelson, with his strong congressional connections, has the ability to make large moves for the benefit of NASA’s new mission as a commercial partner and we hope his time as head of the agency shows this.

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