Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things, and they’re all out of gum

Zoom in / NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been a steady hand for the space agency.


Not for the first time, I was wrong. And before I was interviewed earlier this month by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, I knew it.

“Before I ask any questions, I just want to say something,” I said at the beginning of our discussion. “I wrote some important things about you at the time you were nominated as administrator. And I was wrong about them.”

Nelson laughed in response.

“I must say, as a politician, you are used to criticism,” he said. “If I remember all the criticisms I’ve received over the years, I’ll be in bad shape. I get enough criticisms at home from the training I had from Grace Nelson, that I remember those criticisms better. But those criticisms are in politics and career, I don’t even remember them.”

President Biden nominated Nelson to become the Administrator of NASA on March 21, 2021. At the time, Nelson seemed too old for the rapidly changing space agency. He was also critical of the commercial space industry to which the agency was increasingly turning to for low-cost services. He had been very critical of the previous director, Jim Bridenstine, saying that no politician should lead the space agency. (Nelson was a politician for 45 years before he led NASA.) My story about his candidacy reflect these concerns.

None of this matters in the nomination process. Nelson’s former colleagues in the US Senate, where he served for 18 years, quickly confirmed him to the position by voice vote.

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Since then, Nelson has led NASA like a statesman. Behind the scenes, make sure there are assistants who are able to help. Pam Milroy, the second woman to command a space shuttle, became its deputy director. A friend of Nelson’s and another former shuttle captain, Bob Cabana, was tapped to become co-director. Nelson delegated the technical details to them. And he did what he did best – persuaded him.

Along the way, he managed to wow pretty much everyone, including some of us in the media who were skeptical. It was by no means complete. He often talks in platitudes and generalities. But it gets the job done. Ask pretty much anyone who came into contact with Nelson during his time as administrator and you’ll get some variation of “He’s just a really nice guy who turned over the agency.”

Nelson doesn’t deserve credit for all of the space agency’s accomplishments in the 18 months since he took charge. Many of these projects started years or decades ago. But he got them to the finish line and led the agency into a golden era for many of its programs. Consider some recent NASA accomplishments:

  • The launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion project that could easily have failed
  • Successful launch and flyby of the long-awaited Artemis I mission, which kicked off the return of NASA astronauts to deep space
  • Maintaining the International Space Station’s fragile partnership with Russia amid the turmoil of Russia’s war against Ukraine
  • The DART impact mission succeeded, finally completing NASA’s mandate to demonstrate an asteroid scattering capability
  • Securing full funding for the Artemis program, including spacesuits and SpaceX’s Starship on the Moon
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Given the above accomplishments, it can reasonably be said that 2022 has been NASA’s best year since 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Moreover, the future is bright for the space agency. For its science directorate, NASA officials can point to a string of ongoing science mission successes—the cleverness The helicopter is still flying over Mars after more than a year, for example — and a pipeline for upcoming exploration missions that include returning Martian rocks to Earth while visiting the intriguing moons Europa and Titan. And with humans, for the first time since Apollo, NASA has a credible path to human exploration of the Moon and possibly, one day, Mars with the Artemis program.

Nelson had the good sense to double Artemis, which his predecessor Bridenstine had devised. Too often, new administrations and new officials dumped the work of those who came before, especially when they were from a different political party. But Nelson has been singing Artemis’ praises since day one. And he was loyal to the goal of sustainability, too.

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