President Joe Biden has nominated his longtime colleague, former Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), to lead NASA, the administration announced today. If confirmed, Nelson will be tasked with leading the country back to the Moon, while also developing an ambitious project to recover the rock samples drilled by the Perseverance rover on Mars.
Nelson, 78, has a long history with the agency. He first entered national politics as a representative for the district that is home to Florida’s space coast and flew as a civilian on the space shuttle in 1986. As a senator, he was a lead author of the law that created NASA’s new Moon rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which yesterday saw the first successful test of its engines. Although some have called for the overbudget and delayed SLS to be wound down now that private space companies SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing their own large rockets, Nelson’s nomination seems likely to cement the program, which has so far cost more than $20 billion, with each launch expected to cost $2 billion.
Given his history in the Senate, where he served until he was defeated by a Republican challenger, Rick Scott, in 2018, Nelson is likely to win confirmation from his colleagues. But his nomination disappointed some, who hoped for a more innovative—and potentially female—voice to lead the agency. “His legacy is the monster rocket and, in some ways, it is poetic justice that it will be his cross to bear,” tweeted Lori Garver, a former deputy administrator of NASA under then-President Barack Obama.
Nelson has little track record of engagement with the agency’s science programs, which have enjoyed a rising budget in recent years, buoyed especially by increased spending on planetary science. Programs with community and congressional support, such as the Mars sample return, a two-mission effort to retrieve the Perseverance samples and return them to Earth, will likely continue unimpeded, says John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at George Washington University. “I doubt he’ll make a drastic change in it.”
Like many politicians from the states that have benefited from NASA spending, Nelson was skeptical of commercial programs, pioneered especially by SpaceX, to launch supplies and astronauts to the space station. He has since endorsed such efforts. But skeptics think he will be unwilling to abandon the SLS even if the commercial alternatives prove viable.
Assuming Nelson continues the SLS, he will need to decide on a realistic deadline for the Artemis program, NASA’s bid to again land astronauts on the Moon. The Trump administration had set a 2024 deadline, which has long been seen as infeasible. And Nelson will also need to negotiate the future of the aging International Space Station, “which is the elephant in the room that people ignore,” Logsdon says. Although the station could operate until 2030 or longer, a strategy for its replacement, which will serve as a low-Earth orbit destination for U.S. astronauts, is desperately needed.
The Biden administration has made clear it seeks to elevate the climate research conducted by NASA, recently creating a new senior climate adviser position that is currently filled by Gavin Schmidt, one of NASA’s leading climate scientists. Nelson appears to be supportive of climate research. He has warned of the risks of sea-level rise to Florida, and in 2018, he protested the Trump administration’s cancellation of NASA’s $10 million Carbon Monitoring System, a move first reported by Science. Congress subsequently restored the program.
Nelson and his allies in Congress will need to decide whether to rebalance spending across NASA’s science missions or push for an overall increase, says Casey Dreier, director of space policy for the Planetary Society, which advocates for high planetary science spending. Planetary science has seen its fortunes swell to an annual level of $2.7 billion, whereas over the past decade, NASA’s leadership on Earth observation has slipped as the European Space Agency launched a host of satellites as part of its Copernicus program. The agency’s earth science budget dropped during the budget wars of the Obama administration. It has since recovered to an annual level of about $2 billion, well below the inflation-adjusted highs of $2.5 billion in the late 1990s, Dreier says. “I think there’s an effort afoot to get that back up.”
Three years ago, earth scientists published their latest decadal guidance on satellites to develop, which prioritized missions to monitor clouds and atmospheric particles, “hyperspectral” imaging missions that could highlight substances from chlorophyll to oil, a satellite radar system to track tiny crustal movements, and a mission to study minute gravity shifts from melting ice sheets. The report also laid out science targets for a $350 million program of new missions, including greenhouse gases, ice elevations, and ocean surface winds. NASA’s centers have been developing concepts for these missions that should move into development during Nelson’s tenure—and they represent an easy target for increased investment if Congress is willing.
If confirmed, Nelson would mark the second-straight politician to lead the agency, following James Bridenstine, the former Republican congressman from Oklahoma who ran the agency under then-President Donald Trump. The Senate often deferred to Nelson on space questions, and many of his former staff have already joined NASA headquarters as part of Biden’s first tranche of political appointees. And although Nelson famously railed against Bridenstine’s nomination, having a politician lead the agency is not a bad idea. “Like the president, he is a member of the Senate club,” Logsdon says. “And so he’s going to have access.”