Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things, and he’s out of gum
Not for the first time, I was wrong. And heading into an interview earlier this month with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, I knew.
“Before I ask questions, I want to say something,” I said at the beginning of our conversation. “I wrote some critical things about you when you were nominated as administrator. And I was just wrong there.’
Nelson chuckled in response.
“I have to say, 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 better remember those criticisms. But those in politics and professional life, I can’t even remember.”
President Biden nominated Nelson on March 21, 2021, to become NASA’s administrator. At the time, Nelson seemed too old for a space agency that was rapidly changing. He was also a critic of the commercial space industry that the agency increasingly turned to for cheaper services. And he had sharply criticized the previous director, Jim Bridenstine, for saying that a politician should not run the space agency. (Nelson was a politician for 45 years before running NASA.) My story about his nomination reflected these concerns.
None of this mattered in the nomination process. Nelson’s former colleagues in the U.S. Senate, where he served for 18 years, quickly confirmed him to the position by ballot.
Since then, Nelson has led NASA like a statesman. Behind the scenes, he made sure he had two capable lieutenants to assist. Pam Melroy, only the second woman to command a space shuttle, became his deputy administrator. Nelson’s friend and another former shuttle commander, Bob Cabana, was asked to become an associate administrator. Nelson delegated the technical details to them. And he did what he does best: schmooze.
Along the way, he’s managed to charm pretty much everyone, including some of us in the media who were skeptical. He certainly hasn’t been perfect. He often speaks in platitudes and generalities. But he gets the job done. Ask pretty much anyone who came into contact with Nelson during his tenure as an administrator and you’ll get some variation of, “He’s just a genuinely nice guy who did it for the agency.”
Nelson deserves no credit for any of the space agency’s accomplishments during the 18 months since he took over as administrator. Many of these projects started years or decades ago. But he brought them across the finish line and led the agency into what is a golden age for many of its programs. Consider some of NASA’s recent accomplishments:
- 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, beginning the return of NASA astronauts to deep space
- Preserving the fragile International Space Station partnership with Russia amid the tumult of Russia’s war against Ukraine
- DART impact mission a success, finally fulfilling NASA’s mandate to demonstrate it can deflect an asteroid
- Secure full funding for the Artemis program, including for spacesuits and SpaceX’s Starship lunar module
Given the above achievements, it’s fair to say that 2022 was NASA’s best year since 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. In addition, the future looks bright for the space agency. For its science directorate, NASA officials can point to a series of ongoing science mission successes – the Resourcefulness helicopter, for example, is still flying on Mars after more than a year — and a pipeline of upcoming exploration missions, including 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 has had the good sense to double Artemis, which was created by his predecessor, Bridenstine. All too often, new governments and new administrators have thrown away the work of those who came before, especially if they are from a different political party. But Nelson has been singing the praises of Artemis from day one. And he has also stayed true to the goal of sustainability.
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