President Joe Biden is nominating his old friend Bill Nelson to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), finally settling months of speculation.
To some insiders, Nelson is a puzzling choice for a tough job. A former space-shuttle passenger who later served three terms as a U.S. senator representing Florida, the 78-year-old Nelson isn’t lacking in political experience. He has strong personal ties to Biden and the space industry.
But he’s an old white man at a time when many space professionals are clamoring for younger, female leadership.
Moreover, there’s something of a black mark on Nelson in certain space circles. Some longtime veterans of the U.S. space program still loosely associate the former senator with one of NASA’s greatest tragedies—the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986.
Nelson flew on the shuttle mission directly preceding Challenger’s doomed launch—and his presence on that earlier shuttle compelled NASA to reshuffle the crew roster for future missions, including Challenger’s.
Nelson’s nomination “kind of boggles the mind,” John Logsdon, a former NASA adviser and ex-director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, told The Daily Beast.
When Biden tapped a record number of women for top posts in his administration, many observers assumed he would also nominate a woman to head NASA. There’s no shortage of good candidates—among them, former space-shuttle pilot Pam Melroy and Ellen Stofan, director of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.
So it came as an unpleasant surprise to some when the reports rolled in that Biden was tapping Nelson. “I am disappointed that we won’t have more diverse leadership in the role,” Briony Horgan, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in Indiana, told The Daily Beast. Horgan helped NASA select the landing site for NASA’s new Mars rover Perseverance, which arrived on the red planet last month.
It’s one of a number of high-profile missions on NASA’s docket: landing rovers on Mars, launching a new space telescope, and preparing powerful rockets and other hardware to return astronauts to the moon.
It might console critics somewhat that Biden reportedly plans to name Melroy as deputy administrator, potentially setting her up to head the agency in the future. NASA did not respond to a request for comment.
Setting aside their disappointment over the missed opportunity for female leadership, many space insiders conceded that Nelson should be an adequate administrator. “I’m sure Nelson will do a good job,” Matt Siegler, an astronomer with the Arizona-based Planetary Science Institute, told The Daily Beast.
Nelson is not a scientist. Rather, he’s a career politician who has consistently advocated for science through his decades in public service. In that sense, he’s not alone. Former President Donald Trump’s NASA administrator, former Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine, was a businessman before getting elected to the U.S. House of Representatives for three terms.
But many administrators before Bridenstine have been engineers, scientists, or veteran astronauts. Charles Bolden, former President Barack Obama’s long-serving NASA chief, logged nearly 700 hours in space—and even commanded Nelson on one space-shuttle sortie in early 1986. Michael Griffin, the NASA administration under former President George W. Bush, is a physicist and engineer.
Despite his lack of science education or deep direct experience in NASA, ex-senator Nelson undoubtedly loves the space agency. “Nelson has been a longtime NASA aficionado and supporter,” Roger Launius, NASA’s chief historian before his 2016 retirement, told The Daily Beast.
Nelson has been particularly supportive of one of NASA’s riskiest, and arguably most important, initiatives—a long-delayed, massively over-budget effort to develop a huge new rocket booster capable of sending astronauts and their hardware to the moon… and eventually Mars.
As a senator, Nelson was one of the main proponents of the Space Launch System, which takes old space-shuttle rockets and refurbishes and upgrades them for future missions. “This allows NASA to get out beyond lower Earth orbit and start to explore the heavens, which is the job NASA has always been tasked to do,” Nelson said when he unveiled the SLS design back in 2011.
A decade ago, Nelson insisted SLS would cost no more than $11.5 billion and be ready for its first test launch by 2017. But the old rockets turned out to need a lot more work than Nelson and his allies—including then-NASA administrator Bolden—anticipated. SLS has cost $17 billion so far and still hasn’t flown. When news broke regarding Nelson’s expected nomination, engineers at a NASA facility in Mississippi were busy rigging up SLS rockets for a critical ground test.
As NASA administrator, Nelson could play a key role in protecting, and finishing, the SLS project—and positioning the agency to eventually send astronauts back to the moon and then on to Mars.
But it’s Nelson’s ties to astronauts-past that are the biggest stains on his reputation. After receiving training as a payload specialist, Nelson flew on space shuttle Columbia under the command of then-astronaut Bolden. Nelson was a three-term Florida congressman at the time.
For NASA, getting Nelson on Columbia had obvious benefits, as it helped to cement ties between the agency and the House of Representatives. The space agency was lobbying Congress to pass a law designating NASA as the sole agency for space launches, in order to head off an increasingly assertive Pentagon.
But coordinating Nelson’s schedule proved difficult. When NASA finally slotted Nelson into the Columbia crew, it bumped one of the existing crew—engineer Greg Jarvis—to the next shuttle flight, slated to blast off just a few days after Columbia landed in late January 1986. That next shuttle was Challenger. It exploded on liftoff, killing all seven crew members.
Nelson said he was horrified by the Challenger incident. “My mind did not want to accept what my eyes were seeing,” he recalled years later. “I kept waiting to see the Challenger emerge out of the smoke.”
But James Oberg, who was a NASA mission controller from 1975 to 1997, is still angry at Nelson over Jarvis’ death. “NASA only put him [Nelson] on the mission to buy his vote in a crucial congressional budget dispute,” Oberg told The Daily Beast.
The Challenger explosion rendered the issue moot. NASA grounded its surviving shuttles for two years, leaving Congress no choice but to let the military buy its own rockets. “Consequently the plans for a NASA monopoly on launch services were canceled, and so Nelson’s presence became pointless anyway—too late to save Jarvis’ life,” Oberg said.
Logsdon said it’s unfair to blame Nelson for Jarvis’ death. Nelson “was just a passenger going along on a flight,” Logsdon said. NASA shuffles and reshuffles crews all the time. It’s impossible to guarantee the safety of any one crew on any one spacecraft. Columbia, Nelson’s shuttle, wound up crashing years later in 2003, killing all seven people on board.
Most of the space insiders The Daily Beast spoke with didn’t even mention the Challenger controversy. To many space professionals, Challenger—and the entire shuttle program, which ended in 2011—is ancient history.
Hearing word of Nelson’s nomination, they mostly reacted with resigned shrugs. Chris Impey, a University of Arizona astronomer, told The Daily Beast he was ambivalent. “A woman would have been a good and natural pick, and/or someone more visionary, but Nelson is unlikely to ruffle feathers or cause controversy.”