President Joe Biden will nominate former Florida Senator Bill Nelson to lead NASA, according to a White House announcement released Friday (March 19).
In addition to a career spent representing the Space Coast in the federal government, Nelson's claim to space fame is that before becoming a senator, he interrupted his career as an elected official to serve as a payload specialist on a six-day flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.
"In the Senate he was known as the go-to senator for our nation's space program," Biden officials wrote in a statement. "Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint."
Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives committee focused on science welcomed the announcement. "I am pleased that the president has chosen Sen. Nelson to lead NASA, an agency that is one of the crown jewels of the nation's science and technology enterprise and a source of inspiration throughout the world," Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the committee's chairperson, said in a statement.
Nelson's nomination will be considered by the Senate; if approved, he will replace Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk. Jurczyk took the lead at NASA in January, when former Administrator Jim Bridenstine stepped down at the end of former President Donald Trump's first term.
During Bridenstine's confirmation hearings in 2018, Nelson voiced concerns about the appointment, given Bridenstine's personal history as a politician. "The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional," he said. "That's what this senator wants — a space professional, not a politician, as the head of NASA."
Bridenstine has already endorsed Nelson's nomination.
"Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for NASA administrator," the former administrator wrote in a statement, noting Nelson's "political clout" and "diplomatic skills" in particular. "Bill Nelson will have the influence to deliver strong budgets for NASA and, when necessary, he will be able to enlist the help of his friend, President Joe Biden. The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay."
Acting Administrator Jurczyk has also welcomed the decision. "Bill has a proven history of supporting our work here at NASA, and has helped advance America's position in human exploration, science, aeronautics, and technology," Jurczyk said in a statement.
"The men and women at NASA are an incredible national asset and will continue to take on the most pressing issues facing our country. As we look to the future — and with Bill at the helm — we will continue to take on and find solutions to problems once thought unsolvable, and educate and inspire the next generation of American scientists, engineers, and workers."
Nelson joined the Florida Legislature in 1972, the federal House of Representatives in 1978, the Florida Cabinet in 1994 and the Senate in 2000.
As a Democrat in the Senate, Nelson represented Florida for 18 years and was a leading architect of the agency's current strategy to pursue both governmental and commercial space exploration, according to the White House statement.
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation has also released a statement in support of Nelson's appointment.
He also advocated that the International Space Station's mission be extended to 2030, five years beyond the date called for by Trump's 2019 plan.
Nelson lost a bid for re-election in 2018 to Republican Rick Scott, who had previously served as Florida's governor. Since leaving the Senate, he has served on the NASA Advisory Council, an independent group that counsels the agency.
During his flight on Columbia, Nelson's crew deployed a satellite and researched astrophysics and materials science, according to his archived NASA biography.
Editor's note: This article was updated to include a comment from NASA's current acting administrator, Steve Jurczyk. Email Meghan Bartels at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.