U.S. Rep. Bill Nelson found himself on the right committee at the right time.
In the 1980s, NASA was developing plans to allow non-professional astronauts into space. Nelson began preparing, hoping for a leg-up if the opportunity ever came.
"That meant more than simply reading books and visiting the Cape. If I was going to speak about the space program accurately in Congress, I wanted to feel what the astronauts felt," he wrote in a 1988 memoir Mission.
"I started a regimen of physical conditioning that included running at least four miles every day, plus workouts in the gym. … In an Air Force F-16 jet, flying over the bombing test range in south Florida, I asked the pilot to pull the max Gs. For fifteen seconds in a left turn, we pulled nine times gravity. The pressure was so intense that my oxygen mask was sagging off my face."
On Sunday Jan. 12, 1986, payload specialist Nelson and seven other men blasted off in Space Shuttle Columbia. They spent six days in orbit.
"I got into the best shape of my life at age 44. I was on top of everything and quick mentally," Nelson said on American Beach. "I didn't want to give that up."
Ten days after Columbia landed, Challenger lifted off into a clear Florida sky. Nelson watched from his congressional office in Washington, reliving the experience with staff then recoiling in horror. "My mind did not want to accept what my eyes were seeing. I kept waiting to see the Challenger emerge out of the smoke," he wrote.
Nelson's time in the space program has won him friends in Congress — even when Washington was at its most partisan. During the 2013 government shutdown, which made Ted Cruz persona non grata among many Republicans, Nelson's wife, Grace ran into Cruz in the Capitol basement and invited him to dinner. They bonded over NASA, Nelson telling war stories about his shuttle training.
"Ted and I still get along today," Nelson said.