ORLANDO, Fla. – NASA’s new administrator, former U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, is a only a few weeks into his new job but he’s already hit the ground running.
Nelson has strong ties to space and the Space Coast. In 1913, his grandparents earned a piece of land under the Homestead Act that later became the north end of the Shuttle Landing Facility. In 1986, he flew to space on board Space Shuttle Columbia.
He said he was the last crew member to board the shuttle that morning and took a moment to reflect on his grandparents’ legacy from the top of the launch tower.
“It just overwhelmed me,” Nelson said. “They could never have believed that a grandson was going to literally leave face of the Earth almost from the place that they had swatted mosquitoes and set it off rattlesnakes and alligators.”
But he never expected his “friend” President Joe Biden would pick him to be the next administrator.
“You snap to attention, you click your heels and you say, ‘Aye aye sir Mr. President,’” Nelson said. “And I’m having a ball.”
Nelson, a career politician, found success and support as a moderate Democrat in Florida. Now he wants to run NASA entirely bipartisan because he said the space agency is bipartisan, serving all mankind.
Biden’s priorities for NASA are research and development, STEM, climate change, and of course space travel, so Nelson said those are now NASA’s priorities.
“If you want to mitigate climate change, you’ve got to measure it,” Nelson said. “NASA builds the machines. We design them, we build them, we launch them and we turn them over to NOAA to operate them.”
One of Nelson’s challenges now is similar to what it was when he was a senator: secure funding for NASA. His new budget request will be the largest ever for NASA science.
The agency only got $850 million from Congress to build a lunar lander, the craft that will take humans down to the surface of the moon. Nelson said he needs $3.4 billion for that.
“It’s going to be difficult if Congress won’t open up the pockets, but I’m working on that,” Nelson said.
The Space Launch System is NASA’s “baby,” as Nelson called it - the monster rocket that will take the next man and first woman back to the moon, and eventually Mars. Under the Trump administration, the plan was a crewed moon landing in 2024 and an un-crewed mission later this year.
But the U.S. Government Accountability Office said 2024 is less likely; the technology for a landing has yet to be developed.
“It’s a stretch, it’s a challenge, but the schedule is 2024,” Nelson said. “It (the SLS) is being stacked in the Vehicle Assembly Building at KSC right now.”
NASA awarded $2.9 billion to Elon Musk’s SpaceX to build the lunar lander. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin has since filed a protest with the federal government. Nelson said the protest is being reviewed and currently under a 100-day blackout period.
Nelson, 78, said he plans to remain in his role at NASA “as long as the good Lord” lets him.
“Although I doubt they will let me crawl in and strap into a spacecraft, but I’d sure like to,” Nelson said.
Use the form below to sign up for the ClickOrlando.com space newsletter, sent every Wednesday afternoon.