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Bill Nelson gets GOP support at NASA confirmation hearing

Nelson’s nomination vote shouldn’t controversial, though some in space community wanted Biden to nominate a woman to the job for the first time.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson.
Former Sen. Bill Nelson. [ J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE ]
Published Apr. 21
Updated Apr. 21

WASHINGTON — Former Florida Sen. Bill Nelson found himself in the coldest hot-seat possible on Wednesday.

Senate confirmation hearings are venues for lawmakers to grill presidential nominees for Cabinet posts, key administration positions, and judges. Often, they are high-profile events where the right kinds of questions can generate headlines and even derail a nominee.

Nelson’s confirmation hearing to be President Joe Biden’s NASA administrator was the exact opposite. If confirmed, Nelson would lead the agency with more than 17,000 employees and serve as Biden’s top adviser on space issues.

Nelson was introduced by two Republicans, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, and the bipartisan compliment-fest didn’t stop there.

South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune used part of his question time to show a photo of him holding a python while visiting Nelson in the Everglades, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said Nelson was one of the few Biden nominees he isn’t opposed to.

“There are not many Biden nominees about which I am enthusiastic, and your nomination is a notable exception to that,” Cruz said. “And I’m enthusiastic because you and I have worked together for a lot of years, and I know that you genuinely care about the mission of NASA.”

And while the reception between Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who narrowly defeated Nelson in 2018 after a recount, and Nelson wasn’t as warm, the sitting senator didn’t criticize Nelson during his question time, asking him about the importance of space-related industries to Florida’s economy and the increasing presence of Russia and China in space.

“Senator Nelson, it’s nice to see you,” Scott said. “It’s nice to see a Floridian nominated for NASA.”

Nelson represented Brevard County, home to Kennedy Space Center, in the House of Representatives and went to space on a shuttle mission in 1986 before winning a U.S. Senate seat in 2000. He served as the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of NASA and the same committee responsible for his nomination hearing, from 2015 until 2019.

During his remarks, Nelson said he would like to see U.S. astronauts land on the moon by 2024, affirming a Trump administration plan called Artemis that some experts have said is not feasible.

“We all have to recognize that space is hard,” Nelson said. “We’re going to see that timetable tried to be adhered to but with some sobering reality that space is hard.”

Nelson also said he would continue to promote Florida’s space industry as it relies more and more on private companies like SpaceX to conduct space flight and committed to making sure that any cooperation with China and Russia in space does not compromise U.S. national security or economic interests.

“It’s a very robust future,” Nelson said of Florida’s space industry. “I think it’s going to be a very robust future for specifically Florida but for other states as well.”

Nelson, who once was skeptical about the prospects of commercial space travel, has softened his stance in recent years and is now more amendable to NASA working with private companies to save money and time on complicated, expensive projects. The Biden administration has also said it supports the Artemis project.

Nelson said Artemis “has to be continued, regardless of who’s in the majority, of who’s in the presidency.”

The Commerce Committee confirmation hearing with Nelson also included Lina Khan, Biden’s nominee to serve as Federal Trade Commissioner, and Leslie Kiernan the nominee to serve as the Commerce Department’s general counsel.

Nelson, who is close with Biden, would be the second straight member of Congress to serve as NASA administrator after Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Republican who served under former President Donald Trump. Nelson opposed Bridenstine’s nomination in 2017, successfully holding up his confirmation for months after Rubio joined his colleague in opposition.

At the time, Nelson argued Bridenstine was too partisan for the job, saying “The leader of NASA should not be political.”

Bridenstine was eventually confirmed months later in April 2018 in a drama-filled vote after Rubio decided to support him, and Bridenstine eventually named Nelson to a NASA advisory committee after he lost his Senate seat.

Nelson’s nomination vote should be less controversial, though some in space community wanted Biden to nominate a woman to the job for the first time.

During his opening remarks, Rubio compared Nelson’s nomination process to voting for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, when beat writers from various cities stand up to argue for the induction of players from their hometown team.

Some nominees, Rubio said, are so uncontroversial they need no introduction, comparing Nelson to former Miami Dolphins coach and no-doubt Hall-of-Famer Don Shula. He ended his brief introduction without a detailed argument for Nelson’s nomination because he said it wasn’t necessary.

“Ladies and gentleman of this committee, Bill Nelson,” Rubio said.