On March 19, 2021, the Biden administration announced that it had nominated a successor to the role of NASA administrator. Her candidate was Senator Clarence William Nelson II (aka Bill Nelson), a Democratic Senator from Florida, an attorney, and a former NASA payload specialist. On Monday, May 3rd, he took on the role of 14th NASA administrator during a ceremony where he received the oath of office.
Harris, who recently took over the presidency of the National Space Council (NSC) from outgoing Vice President Mike Pence, took Nelon the oath during a ceremony in the Vice Presidential Office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). They were accompanied by video conference from former administrator Bridenstine and personally by Nelson’s family and Charles F. Bolden, who served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017.
“Congratulations, Mr. Administrator, on all of your work and dedication to our country,” said Vice President Harris. “I could no longer agree that it has to be about our nation and the best for our nation, unencumbered by partisan politics, but based on what we know, it is the right thing to do.”
Senator Bill Nelson at the ceremony where Nelson was sworn in as the 14th NASA administrator. Photo credit: NASA / Aubrey Gemignani
In a speech he gave after the oath, Nelson said:
“It is an honor to be sworn in as NASA Administrator by Vice President Harris, and I look forward to continuing to work closely with her as Chair of the National Space Council. I would like to thank Steve Jurczyk for his leadership role as acting administrator over the past few months in helping implement the priorities of the Biden-Harris administration and ensuring the success of NASA’s goals and missions. You have seen the incredible achievements at NASA over the past 100 days – the proof is in the pudding. “
The NSC was reactivated in 2017, the announcement of which coincided with the unveiling of the Trump administration’s space policy (which emphasized a return to the moon). The NSC was originally formed in 1958 with the passage of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which called for NASA to be established and established the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) – which was later renamed NSC.
Also in attendance was Colonel Pam Melroy, a member of the National Space Council’s Users Advisory Group, former test pilot and astronaut in the US Air Force, and one of only three women to command a space shuttle mission. Melroy was recently nominated by the Biden Administration for the role of NASA Assistant Administrator. Nelson paid tribute to her and the other attendees who have played an important role in continuing NASA’s efforts in space:
“I was happy to be accompanied today by my skirt, my wife Grace, my children, assistant administrator candidate Col. Pam Melroy and former NASA administrators Charlie Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, whose position with me is the continuity of purpose and Symbolizes bipartisanism. It’s an incredible time for the aerospace industry and I look forward to leading the NASA workforce into an exciting future! “
Illustration of Artemis astronauts on the moon. Credits: NASA
Nelson is eminently qualified for this role because of his long history with NASA and the way he has been instrumental in many of the agency’s positive moves. In 1986 Nelson flew the Space Shuttle Columbia, where he was the payload specialist and Charles Bolden was the pilot. As part of the STS-61C mission, Nelson conducted 12 medical experiments (including the first American space stress test) and one university-sponsored cancer research experiment.
Between 2001 and 2019, Nelson represented Florida’s 9th and 11th district in the US House of Representatives. During this time he distinguished himself as a leading advocate of space programs in Congress. In 2010, he criticized the Obama administration’s decision to completely end Project Constellation. This program was launched in 2005 to develop a new generation of heavy launch vehicles to replace the aging space shuttle.
Later that year, when the Obama administration declared its commitment to setting a new course for NASA’s future in space, Nelson and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, worked together to pass the NASA Authorization Act. This landmark piece of legislation approved funding for NASA for the next three years, retired the space shuttle by 2011, and set goals for the next two decades.
These included the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, an Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) until 2021 and a crewed mission to Mars until 2030. In 2017 Nelson and Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas ) authored the NASA Transition Authorization Act, which approved transition funding for NASA’s long-term goals and expanded its commercial activities in space.
Former Senator Bill Nelson speaks to the media after he was sworn in as the 14th NASA administrator by Vice President Kamala Harris. Photo credit: NASA / Aubrey Gemignani
Prior to his appointment, Nelson was a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), a body of selected citizens that advises and guides NASA on important program and policy issues. He also served as Head of the House Science and Space Subcommittee for six years before becoming a senior member of the Commerce, Science and Transport Committee.
Nelson was confirmed as the next NASA administrator by the US Senate on April 29. Acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk on the decision:
“I am excited to welcome Bill to the NASA family. 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. It was an honor to serve as acting administrator, but it’s the NASA workforce that makes the agency unique. Thank you for everything you are doing to advance NASA’s critical missions. “
In his new role at NASA, Nelson will be responsible for directing the nation’s space program at an extremely critical point. In less than three years, NASA wants to land the “first woman and the next man” on the moon as part of the Artemis program. Much remains to be done in the meantime, including preparing the SLS for launch tests and resolving the litigation over who can build the Human Landing System (SLS).
In addition, Nelson will oversee the expansion of climate change research, promote innovation, and strengthen NASA’s public relations work in business, research, manufacturing, and STEM education. The years to come will be quite turbulent as NASA grapples with several challenges. It is encouraging to know that a seasoned veteran will take over the helm.
Further reading: NASA