WASHINGTON — Former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida returned to a familiar setting on Wednesday — the hearing room of the Senate panel that oversees space policy — where his former colleagues welcomed him back as President Joe Biden’s pick to serve as NASA administrator.
Senators from both sides of the aisle praised Nelson as an ideal fit for the post, commending his enthusiasm for space policy, his deep background in the field, and his collegial approach to working with fellow senators during the 18 years he spent in that chamber.
Sitting at the witness table, across from the senators he previously worked alongside, Nelson, 78, choked up as he described the friendships he developed in the Senate and thanked them for their supportive comments.
“If you all decide that you’re going to confirm me, I look forward to this with gusto and with enthusiasm,” Nelson said.
Nelson, a Democrat, was elected to the Senate in 2000 and served as the chairman or ranking member of the Senate Space and Science Subcommittee. Before that, he worked on space policy in the U.S. House and was serving as a congressman when he flew on space shuttle Columbia in January 1986.
He was a U.S. senator until 2019, after losing to then-Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, in a close contest.
Sen. Marco Rubio, (R-Fla.), compared Nelson to former Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula, the most-winning coach in NFL history, saying he needed no introduction to the Commerce, Science, and Transportation panel where he rose to become the ranking member.
“Everybody here knows Sen. Nelson: You know his character, his integrity, you served alongside him,” Rubio said. “I think this is an inspired choice.”
In another bipartisan showing, former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, appeared remotely to tout their work together on a landmark bill in 2010 that set NASA on its present dual course of both government and commercial space missions. At that time, she recalled, there were many who were still skeptical of NASA relying on a “nascent” commercial space industry.
“Bill worked tirelessly to convince lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, that commercial companies could take over transportation for crew and cargo in low Earth orbit while NASA was pushing in the deep space area,” Hutchison said. “His work paid off.”
Speaking to the committee directly instead of reading from prepared testimony, Nelson’s face lit up as he described the historic flight on Mars this week by NASA’s Ingenuity helicopter; the plans this fall to launch the successor to the Hubble telescope; and the work underway to return a manned mission to the moon by 2024 and eventually to Mars, which he called “the goal in the decade of the 2030s.”
Nelson credited NASA’s research with a “spinoff” effect, pulling out his own cellphone and describing how the tiny camera inside was made possible through technology developed for satellites. The agency’s robotic developments have spurred advancements in surgery that he said have benefited Americans, including himself and members of the committee.
“If you ask me, what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is for us to continue to explore the heavens with humans and with machines, and there is a lot of excitement,” he said.
“Thank you for your enthusiasm and passion,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, (D-Wash.), chairwoman of the subcommittee. “We definitely feel it, and we think it will be put to good use.”
Nelson pledged to harness the agency’s powerful tools and reach to both better understand climate change and to combat it, describing the agency as “uniquely positioned” to measure the effects of climate change through the instruments NASA designs and puts into orbit.
A fifth-generation Floridian, Nelson grew up near Cape Canaveral. He served in public office for more than four decades, including in the Florida Legislature, in Congress, and as state treasurer.
During Wednesday’s hearing, his former foe Scott said he was glad to see a Floridian tapped to lead NASA, and asked about Florida’s role in the agency’s future projects.
Nelson replied that he sees a “very robust future” for Florida as more commercial companies will be manufacturing and launching from Kennedy Space Center and the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.