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NASA chief nominee Bill Nelson talks Artemis program and more at Senate hearing

Former Senator Bill Nelson spoke in front of his old committee on April 21, 2021, during his confirmation hearing.
Former Senator Bill Nelson spoke in front of his old committee on April 21, 2021, during his confirmation hearing. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Long-time Democratic space politician Bill Nelson expressed support for the Artemis program during a televised three-hour hearing considering his nomination as NASA administrator Wednesday (April 21).

The 78-year-old Nelson — who made space issues a cornerstone issue in his decades representing Florida in the House and Senate — said NASA is still technically committed to a 2024 deadline for landing people on the moon under the Artemis program, albeit "with the sobering reality that space is hard." He also noted that he was not yet allowed to talk to the agency in detail about that deadline, given that his nomination is still pending.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation considered Nelson's confirmation alongside two other nominees of President Joe Biden: Lina Khan, to be a new commissioner on the Federal Trade Commission, and Leslie Kiernan, to be general counsel of the Department of Commerce. The nominees will be open to questions and submissions from the committee until May 5; however, the committee is scheduled to vote on Nelson's nomination on Wednesday (April 28).

Related: NASA likely to stay the course to the moon under Bill Nelson, if confirmed

Nelson sat on the same committee he appeared before until his departure from the Senate in 2018, and the welcome from his former colleagues was quite warm. Various committee members paid tribute to what they called Nelson's long-standing leadership in space policy and NASA's strategic direction, including foreseeing the value of commercial crew and cargo programs as far back in 2005 and participating in a space shuttle flight himself in 1986 as a congressional representative. Nelson was also hailed for his key role in numerous NASA authorization bills over the years.

"I think this is an inspired choice; I can't think of a better American alive to serve in this role," committee member Marco Rubio, R-Fla, said during a formal introduction, adding to warm comments from other members who previously served as Nelson's colleagues when he was ranking member of the committee.

Artemis concerns lead 

Maria Cantwell, D-Wash and chair of the committee, expressed support for NASA while expressing concern for the agency — particularly the pause NASA implemented in securing landing systems for the Artemis moon program in January as Biden took over administration; that said, SpaceX was named days ago for the crucial program piece, well within the extended April 30 deadline. "Right now, we need certainty that is paramount for the agency — and we need steady, thoughtful leadership," Cantwell said of Nelson.

Regarding the SpaceX selection, Nelson told members of the committee that he can't "get into the innards, because I can't talk to NASA until you all decide to confirm me," but said all public statements made by NASA showed that the timetable for landing on the moon by 2024 "is still there with the awardee."

However, Nelson also promised committee members he would ensure "resiliency" for the human landing system of Artemis — meaning, having backup options beyond SpaceX — and to provide a measure of certainty for long-term contracts supporting the program, since it takes many years to develop systems this complex.

Nelson hinted he will scrutinize the tight schedule for putting boots on the moon, currently slated for only three and a half years from now. "I think we all have to recognize that space is hard and it's an ambitious timetable, but that is what has been stated," he said. As for Mars — where NASA hopes to send humans in the 2030s — Nelson said that is still the timeline for now, but any design for a Mars lander would be subject to further competitions.  

Other priorities 

Nelson further pledged to focus on both human and robotic exploration, for applications like science and engineering, during his time at NASA. He expressed support for monitoring global warming using Earth observation satellites, adding that it is impossible to assess the problem unless data is properly collected and analyzed (Trump's administration had deprioritized climate change initiatives and discussion.) Nelson also recalled seeing environmental degradation from orbit a generation ago, including deforestation and tons of silt from eroded soil filtering out into the Indian Ocean.

Regarding China, Nelson expressed some concern about the country's muddy security history with U.S. information, and noted that under his tenure, NASA would continue to abide by the Congressional ban on any information-sharing about space with China, even as the nation recently announced its plan to land humans on the moon in a partnership with Russia, a long-time space station partner of NASA. (That said, some space experts in 2020 said the Chinese threat is overblown.)

Nelson also pointed to recent accomplishments by the agency including the first flight of a helicopter (Ingenuity) on Mars, the safe return of the Demo-2 crew on a new American vehicle, and preparing the long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope for launch in October. He also mentioned the spinoffs of space technology, mentioning specifically the Canadarm robotic arm technology by Canada that has led to advances in robotic surgery — which he himself has experienced firsthand, Nelson said.

Of his predecessor, President Donald Trump's selection Jim Bridenstine, Nelson added, "he did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances, and as a result he became very popular at NASA," although he didn't elaborate on that statement. In 2018, Nelson had expressed concerns about Bridenstine's appointment that year — based on the latter's political background — but in his testimony on Wednesday, Nelson pointed to the men's bipartisan "friendship" and thanked Bridenstine for supporting Nelson's nomination.

Multiple committee members asked about Nelson's plans to encourage diversity at NASA. He pledged to increase participation by and recruitment of women for top jobs and noted that he supports Biden's nominee for deputy administrator: Pam Melroy, a space shuttle astronaut and commander who left NASA in August 2009 and has since held senior positions at the Federal Aviation Administration and DARPA. 

"She is incredibly prepared as well as an absolutely delightful person, and she and I will operate as a team," Nelson told committee members of Melroy, adding that Biden's nominee for NASA's chief financial officer would be female. (NASA's Jurczyk gave his support Thursday, April 22 for the nominee, Margaret Vo Schaus, who is currently director for business operations in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Vo Schaus was announced after the Nelson hearing.)

In response to a question about people of color at NASA, Nelson (saying he was echoing comments by Biden) said that it is important that the composition of the agency's workforce should reflect the diversity of America, but more can always be done to increase recruitment.

He also reminded the committee of "Star Trek" actor Nichelle Nichols' efforts to recruit Black astronauts in the 1970s and 1980s, an era that saw Guy Bluford and Mae Jemison be the first Black American man and woman in space, respectively. On Nelson's own flight in 1986, he told the committee, he served with Black astronaut (and later NASA administrator) Charlie Bolden and one of his key communications liaisons on the ground was Black astronaut Frederick Gregory.

A history with NASA 

An emotional Nelson, fighting back tears, addressed the committee about his 18 years working with many of the very same people considering his nomination. "There's a catch in my throat when I think about the wonderful times that I have had with you all, and the friendships that have been bred over the 18 years that I was privileged to serve," he said. "So your comments are just so gratefully received. But now we have a big task ahead of us, and if you all decide that you're going to confirm me, I look forward to this with gusto and with enthusiasm. There's a lot of excitement going on at NASA right now."

If confirmed, Nelson will be the fourth NASA administrator (permanent or acting) to have flown in space, after Richard Truly, Bolden and Frederick D. Gregory. But unlike the others, Nelson was not a professional astronaut; instead, he took leave from his career as an elected official to serve as a payload specialist on a six-day flight of the space shuttle Columbia in 1986.

Nelson's predecessor, Bridenstine, resigned on Jan. 20 in conjunction with Biden assuming the presidency; veteran agency bureaucrat Steve Jurczyk has been leading NASA on a temporary basis since then. Bridenstine, Jurczyk, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and Democratic leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology all expressed support for Nelson's appointment after he was nominated March 19. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce also endorsed the nomination Monday (April 19).

Nelson joined the Florida Legislature in 1972, the federal House of Representatives in 1978, the Florida Cabinet in 1994 and the Senate in 2000, where he represented Florida for 18 years as a Democrat in the Senate. Among his notable achievements, Nelson led efforts for joint governmental and commercial space exploration and advocated that the International Space Station's mission be extended to 2030

Nelson lost his bid for re-election in 2018 to Republican Rick Scott, who was previously Florida's governor. (Scott now sits on the commerce committee and congratulated his former opponent on the nomination.)

Biden's space policy 

The space agency is at a crucial pivot point in human spaceflight, robotic Mars exploration and astronomy. Some hints of Biden's priorities for Nelson come from the administration's 2022 "skinny budget" for NASA just released earlier this month, which asks Congress to allocate the agency $24.7 billion ($1.5 billion over 2021). The government aims to finalize a full budget before current funding expires on Sept. 30.

The Biden 2022 budget request highlighted the importance of climate science (a different direction from Trump, which regularly tried to reduce the line item). The skinny budget also supports NASA's Mars sample return mission to follow up on the Perseverance rover, which landed Feb. 18. 

Other missions endorsed by the top-line budget include NASA's planned Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter's icy moon, the Dragonfly quadcopter mission to Saturn's moon Titan and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which is due to launch in 2026 and which the Trump administration repeatedly tried to cancel, with Congress reinstating it each time.

NASA is also facing another decision about the fate of the International Space Station. Currently, partner space agencies have only committed to maintaining the facility through 2024, in only three years. Negotiations are ongoing with international partners for a possible extension to 2028, and the agency is also discussing possible private space stations in the future. In the meantime, the ISS is pivoting to more commercial missions — including an all-private Axiom Space mission in 2022.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook. 

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