On March 19th, 2021, the Biden Administration announced that they had nominated a successor for the role of NASA Administrator. Their nominee was Sen. Clarence William Nelson II (aka. Bill Nelson), a Democratic Senator from Florida, an attorney, and a former payload specialist at NASA. On Monday, May 3rd, he assumed the role of 14th NASA Administrator during a ceremony where he was given the oath of office.
Harris, who recently took over as chair of the National Space Council (NSC) from outgoing VP Mike Pence, delivered the oath to Nelon during a ceremony at the VP office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (EEOB). They were joined via video conference by former administrator Bridenstine and in-person by Nelson’s family and Charles F. Bolden – who served as NASA Administrator from 2009 and 2017.
“Congratulations, Mr. Administrator, for all the work you’ve done and all you’ve dedicated to our country,” said Vice President Harris. “I couldn’t agree more that this has to be about our nation and what is best for our nation, unencumbered by partisan politics, but based on what we know is the right thing to do.”
In a speech delivered after he took the oath, Nelson said:
“It’s an honor to be sworn in by Vice President Harris to serve as NASA administrator, and I look forward to a continued, strong relationship with her as chair of the National Space Council. I want to thank Steve Jurczyk for his leadership as Acting Administrator over the past few months, helping to carry out the Biden-Harris Administration’s priorities and ensure the success of NASA’s goals and missions. You’ve seen the incredible accomplishments at NASA over the past 100 or so 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 founded in 1958 with the passing of the National Aeronautics and Space Act, which called for the creation of NASA and established the National Aeronautics and Space Council (NASC) – later renamed the NSC.
Also in attendance was Colonel Pam Melroy, a member of the National Space Council’s Users Advisory Group, a former U.S. Air Force test pilot and astronaut, 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 deputy administrator. Nelson acknowledged her and the other attendees who have played a vital role in the continuation of NASA’s efforts in space:
“I was glad to be joined today by my rock, my wife, Grace, my children, deputy administrator nominee Col. Pam Melroy, and former NASA Administrators Charlie Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, whose standing with me symbolizes the continuity of purpose and bipartisanship. It’s an incredible time for the aerospace sector, and I’m excited to lead NASA’s workforce into an exciting future!”
Nelson is eminently qualified for the role, given his extensive history with NASA and the way he has been integral to many of the positive steps taken by the agency. In 1986, Nelson flew 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 a university-sponsored cancer research experiment.
Between 2001 and 2019, Nelson represented Florida’s 9th and 11th districts in the US House of Representatives. During that time, he distinguished himself as being the leading advocate for space programs in Congress. In 2010, he criticized the Obama administration’s decision to completely terminate Project Constellation. This program was initiated 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 charting a new course for the future of NASA in space, Nelson and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) collaborated to pass the NASA Authorization Act. This landmark legislation authorized appropriations for NASA for the next three years, mandated the retirement of the Space Shuttle by 2011, and established objectives for the next two decades.
Among them was the development of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, an Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) by 2021, and a crewed mission to Mars by the 2030s. In 2017, Nelson and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) authored the NASA Transition Authorization Act, which authorized transitional funding for NASA’s long-term goals and expanded their commercial activities in space.
Prior to his nomination, Nelson was a member-at-large with the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), a body made up of select citizens that provides NASA with advice and guidance on major program and policy issues. He also served as the head of the House’s Subcommittee on Science and Space for six years before becoming the ranking member on the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
Nelson was confirmed as the next NASA Administrator by the US Senate on April 29th. Said acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk about the decision:
“I’m happy 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 has been an honor to serve as acting administrator, but it’s the NASA workforce that makes the agency one-of-a-kind. Thank you for all you do to advance NASA’s critical missions.”
In his new role at NASA, Nelson will be responsible for guiding the nation’s space program at a highly critical juncture. In less than three years, NASA intends to land the “first woman and next man” on the Moon as part of the Artemis Program. In the meantime, there is still much to done, which includes getting the SLS ready for launch-testing and ironing out the legal disputes over who gets to build the Human Landing System (SLS).
In addition, Nelson will oversee the expansion of climate change research, fostering innovation, and enhancing NASA’s outreach efforts to the business, research, manufacturing, and STEM education sectors. The coming years are going to be pretty turbulent as NASA grapples with multiple challenges. It’s encouraging to know that a seasoned veteran will be at the helm.
Further Reading: NASA