The US Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing for former Democratic Senator Bill Nelson on Wednesday to consider his nomination as NASA administrator. Nelson was warmly welcomed by his former colleagues—both Republicans and Democrats—who praised his wealth of experience in making space policy and said he was the best person for the job.
In response to these comments, Nelson thanked the senators and offered fairly bland remarks. “If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is to continue for us to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement.”
There was not a lot of excitement during the hearing, however, aside from a handful of questions about a recent NASA award for the Human Landing System as part of the space agency’s Artemis Moon program.
On the SpaceX award
On Friday, NASA said it had awarded SpaceX $2.89 billion for development of the Starship vehicle and two flights. One of these missions will be an uncrewed flight test of Starship down to the lunar surface and back. The second mission will be a crewed flight—the first one of the Artemis program—down to the Moon. The sole-source award to SpaceX was not popular in Congress, where traditional space companies such as Lockheed Martin and newer entrants like Blue Origin have more established lobbying power. But it sent a clear message from NASA and the White House to budget writers in the House and Senate that the agency is serious about getting to the Moon with the funding it has.
The committee’s chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, asked Nelson about the award. Cantwell, who has advocated for one of the three lunar lander bidders, Washington-based Blue Origin, expressed concern about a lack of competition. She asked if Nelson would commit to adding competition to the lander program.
“I do,” Nelson replied. “Competition is always good.”
But he did not undermine NASA in subsequent remarks. As part of Friday’s announcement, NASA said it would soon move to procure “recurring landing services” from industry. This contract will be for operational missions to the lunar surface and would provide an opportunity for the Blue Origin-led team or Dynetics to play a role in future human landings.
“This is a demonstration of landing a crew on the surface of the moon, and after that, there’s a lot of activity that can go on,” Nelson said of the SpaceX award. He added that competition will be a part of the recurring landing services contracts. The significance here is that Nelson’s statements appeared to be in lock-step with those of NASA officials last week. He was fully backing up the agency he intended to lead.
Cantwell, for her part, did not seem mollified. “There can’t be redundancy later; there has to be redundancy now,” she said of the lunar landing bids.
NASA did want to have a competition for a lunar lander and originally intended to down-select to two contractors this month. However, the US Congress only provided one-quarter of the funding NASA said it needed for the Human Landing System in its fiscal year 2021 budget, so the agency felt its only option was to select a single bidder to move the process forward.
Vote likely soon
The proceedings on Wednesday offered a stark contrast to the nomination hearing of US Rep. Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Republican who was nominated to lead NASA by the Trump administration in 2017. Nelson, then still a senator, attacked Bridenstine during the confirmation hearing. “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson said to Bridenstine, saying Bridenstine was too partisan and political to lead NASA.
On Wednesday, Nelson acknowledged that his opinion of Bridenstine, who attempted to keep NASA apolitical during highly partisan times, had changed. “He did a remarkable job under difficult circumstances,” Nelson said.
The committee is expected to vote on sending Nelson’s nomination to the Senate within the next two weeks. His ultimate confirmation later this spring seems all but certain.