Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things and he’s out of gum

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

NASA

Not for the first time I was wrong. And when I went into an interview with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson earlier this month, 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 critical things about you when you were made an administrator.

Nelson chuckled in response.

“I have to say that as a politician you get used to criticism,” he said. “If I remembered all the criticism I’ve received over the years, I’d be a basket case. I get enough criticism at home from the coaching I have from Grace Nelson and I remember that criticism better. But the ones in politics and professional life, I don’t even remember that.”

President Biden appointed Nelson Administrator of NASA on March 21, 2021. At the time, Nelson seemed too old for a rapidly changing space agency. He was also a critic of the commercial space industry, to which the agency was increasingly turning for lower-cost services. And he had slammed the previous administrator, Jim Bridenstine, saying a politician shouldn’t run the space agency. (Nelson was a politician for 45 years before taking charge of NASA.) My story about his nomination reflected those concerns.

None of this played a role in the nomination process. Nelson’s former colleagues in the US Senate, where he served for 18 years, quickly voted him into office.

Since then, Nelson has led NASA like a statesman. Behind the scenes, he made sure he had two capable lieutenants to back him up. Pam Melroy, only the second woman to command a space shuttle, became its assistant administrator. Nelson’s friend and another former shuttle commander, Bob Cabana, has been appointed Deputy Administrator. Nelson delegated the technical details to her. And he did what he does best – Schmooze.

Along the way he’s managed to charm just about everyone, including some of us in the media who were skeptical. He wasn’t perfect at all. He often speaks in platitudes and generalities. But he gets the job done. Ask just about anyone who has come into contact with Nelson during his tenure as Administrator and you’ll get a variation on “he’s just a really nice guy who worked for the agency”.

Nelson does not deserve credit for all of the space agency’s accomplishments in the 18 months since he took office as administrator. Many of these projects were started years or decades ago. But he got her across the finish line and ushered the agency into a golden era for many of its programs. Consider some of NASA’s recent achievements:

  • Launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion project that could easily have failed
  • Launch and successful flight of the long-delayed Artemis I mission, marking the return of NASA astronauts to space
  • Preserving the International Space Station’s fragile partnership with Russia amid the turmoil of Russia’s war against Ukraine
  • The DART impact mission was a success, finally fulfilling NASA’s mandate to demonstrate the ability to deflect an asteroid
  • Ensuring full funding for the Artemis program, including space suits and SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander

Given the above achievements, it can reasonably be argued that 2022 was NASA’s best year since 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In addition, the future for the space agency looks bright. For their science direction, NASA officials can point to a number of enduring achievements in science missions – the ingenuity Helicopters, for example, are still flying on Mars after more than a year — and a pipeline of upcoming exploration missions that include returning Martian rocks to Earth while visiting the intriguing moons of Europa and Titan. And with humans, for the first time since Apollo, NASA has a credible path for human exploration of the moon and maybe one day Mars with the Artemis program.

Nelson had the common sense to double Artemis created by his predecessor Bridenstine. All too often new administrations and new administrators have scrapped the work of those who came before, especially if they belong to a different political party. But Nelson has been singing the praises of Artemis from day one. And he has also remained true to his goal of sustainability.

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