In 1986, Bill Nelson got the extraordinary opportunity to fly on the Columbia space shuttle. As a congressman representing Florida’s Space Coast—and one who just happened to sit on the House committee overseeing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget—Nelson had a significant leg up on other contenders for the honor. Many NASA insiders felt that he had essentially strong-armed his way onto the flight. Nelson’s official title on the mission was “payload specialist,” but other members of the seven-person crew gave him a less flattering nickname: “Ballast.”
Nelson was assigned to operate some of the hardware used to conduct the mission’s scientific experiments, but the earthbound scientists who’d designed those experiments didn’t want him “anywhere near their equipment,” astronaut Mike Mullane later revealed in a memoir. The researchers had spent months teaching the NASA astronauts how to run their experiments, Mullane recalled. They “had no desire to have a nontechnical politician step in at the last moment and screw things up.” For longtime NASA staffers, this is an all-too-familiar story. They’ve all had the experience of watching politicians step in to screw things up—and Bill Nelson has made a career of doing just that.
On March 19, the White House announced it will nominate the 78-year-old Nelson to serve as NASA administrator. On paper, the choice makes sense. After getting elected to the Senate in 2000, Nelson continued his involvement in NASA affairs, holding top positions on two committees in charge of space policy. “Most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint,” noted the White House press release announcing his nomination.
Unfortunately, that “imprint” arguably hurt NASA more than it helped. From his Senate command post, Nelson routinely overruled NASA’s own engineers when it came to choosing which rocket designs would best suit future missions. He was openly skeptical about the agency’s cost-saving collaborations with SpaceX and other private vendors, and pushed NASA to keep using more cumbersome approaches to building space hardware. The senator’s heavy-handed meddling repeatedly forced the agency to employ outdated methods and technologies, and wasted billions of taxpayer dollars.
Some space experts hope Nelson’s long friendship with President Biden will help protect the agency. “I’m trying to stay positive,” says author Joe Pappalardo, author of Spaceport Earth. “At least NASA now has a savvy political operator at the helm.” And few question the former senator’s enthusiasm for NASA and space exploration.
But many are dismayed at the choice, noting Nelson’s preference for slow, expensive projects, and his efforts to undermine the more nimble approaches recommended by NASA brass (and supported—amazingly—by both the Obama and Trump administrations). “Nelson represents everything NASA needs to get away from,” tweeted astrophysicist Simon Porter, who worked on the agency’s New Horizon Pluto mission. “Now is not the time to turn back the clock at NASA,” echoed Lori Garver, who served as NASA’s deputy administrator under Obama. The nomination “kind of boggles the mind,” said John Logsdon, a former NASA advisor and ex-head of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
Nelson’s fondness for pork-laden projects goes all the way back to the space shuttle era. Just days after Nelson’s Columbia flight touched down, her sister ship, Challenger, was poised for liftoff. At the time, NASA was struggling to prove that the temperamental shuttle could live up to its original promise as a reliable, reusable, and affordable space vehicle. When Challenger’s fuel tank exploded 73 seconds into that flight, it was the worst tragedy in U.S. space history. It should have been a wake-up call as well. The accident revealed what NASA already knew but couldn’t admit: the shuttle’s design, while innovative, was too dangerous for routine use. And while the idea of a reusable launch system was smart (Elon Musk’s SpaceX is making it a reality today), the shuttle was too delicate to withstand frequent, repeated launches. Rather than being safe, sturdy, and economical, the shuttle turned out to be deadly, unreliable, and insanely expensive. Over the life of the program, space shuttle missions would wind up costing roughly $1.5 billion per launch.
Yet Nelson consistently put politics before practicality. After Challenger, the shuttle flew only sporadically. In 2003, when Columbia broke apart on reentry over Texas, the incident confirmed that the vehicle should have been retired years before. The U.S. desperately needed a simple, reliable launch system, perhaps something more like Russia’s crude but dependable Soyuz rockets. From his post in the Senate, however, Nelson pushed NASA to keep the shuttle flying. Thousands of Florida jobs depended on it. Meantime, NASA’s efforts to design a replacement launch system were moving at a glacial pace, despite costing billions. One source of delays: frequently changing edicts from Capitol Hill. For example, Congress insisted that NASA’s next rocket should employ the same solid-fuel rocket boosters used to launch the space shuttle—a supposedly money-saving idea that only added costs and complications. But the idea made impeccable political sense. You see, big workforces were involved in building those boosters; any switch to a superior technology would entail economic and political fallout. Congress preferred the status quo.
Nelson wasn’t the only politician meddling with NASA’s priorities. On the How Do We Fix It? podcast (which I co-host), space journalist Eric Berger recently said, “People in Congress mostly focus on ‘How many jobs can this provide for my district or my state?’ versus ‘What’s in the best interests of the nation’s space program?’” While NASA continued to do brilliant work in unmanned space exploration, its manned space program was devolving into a sclerotic bureaucracy primarily tasked with distributing pork.
People often blame the bureaucrats when a government agency slides toward entropy. But many longtime NASA staffers were unhappy with the agency’s flagging momentum. And, in 2006, NASA leadership quietly launched a program that offered a solution. With the shuttle’s retirement looming—and NASA’s own replacement rocket far behind schedule—the agency needed another way to fly cargo and astronauts to the International Space Station. (For a time, U.S. astronauts had to hitch rides to the ISS on Russian Soyuz rockets, an expensive and humiliating last resort.) Under a small program called Commercial Cargo, NASA offered to pay a fixed fee to private space companies who demonstrated the ability to safely launch NASA cargo on their own rockets. In other words, instead of hiring contractors to help it build its own rockets in-house, NASA would effectively rent space on rockets built and flown by private entrepreneurs. SpaceX—then a scrappy little startup hoping to enter the satellite launch business—was one of the first companies chosen for the program.
It was a bold and forward-looking idea that could save taxpayers billions—so of course Bill Nelson was against it. Even though the initial budget for such public-private partnerships was small, Nelson worked hard to cut it. In one 2010 hearing, Nelson reminded NASA brass that “Congress controls the purse strings,” and suggested eliminating the program’s funding entirely. Behind the scenes, Nelson criticized NASA leaders for working with Elon Musk and SpaceX, according to Berger, author of Liftoff, a lively history of SpaceX’s early years. He was particularly incensed when Musk announced plans to build the Falcon Heavy, a rocket large enough to compete with the huge launch system NASA was developing. “Nelson buttonholed NASA officials for their support of the company,” Berger writes in Ars Technica. “Keep ‘your boy’ in line, he told them.”
Nelson wanted every dollar saved for his pet project, NASA’s in-house rocket design, which some called “Apollo on steroids.” The project later evolved into an even more grandiose plan, known as the Space Launch System, or SLS. The Obama administration supported NASA’s efforts to work with private space companies (as would the Trump White House), but Congress funneled most tax dollars toward SLS instead. Nelson’s efforts significantly delayed NASA’s ability to work with SpaceX to ensure that the company’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule met safety standards. Nonetheless, the program survived. Finally, in 2012, a SpaceX Dragon capsule docked with the ISS, carrying a precious load of supplies, delivered at a fraction of what a space shuttle mission would have cost. And, since the shuttle had flown its final mission in 2011, Elon Musk’s rocket filled a yawning void. By this time, NASA, fully embracing the future, had announced it would expand the Commercial Cargo concept to include transportation for NASA astronauts, a program dubbed Commercial Crew.
Nelson’s SLS behemoth was still in development, however, gobbling up billions while not getting much closer to the launch pad. Nelson predicted the project would come in below its $11.5 billion budget. “If we can’t do a rocket for $11.5 billion, we ought to close up shop,” he said. Now, mind you, Nelson wasn’t just a senator supporting a long-running NASA program; he had essentially ordered the agency to build SLS to his own specifications. Berger calls him “a key architect of the SLS rocket.” Then, when both the Obama administration and NASA leadership wanted to put the misbegotten program out of its misery, Nelson used his considerable clout to keep it alive.
Suffice it to say that Nelson’s budget prediction has not aged well. As of today, SLS has cost taxpayers roughly $20 billion. Building the SLS launch infrastructure on the Florida coast has soaked up another $5 billion. And more than $10 billion has been poured into Orion, the supersized update of the Apollo capsule, which is intended to ride atop the giant rocket. According to NASA’s own estimate, when the SLS rocket finally takes off, the program will cost a staggering $2 billion per mission. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that—as Porter, the astrophysicist, puts it—the former senator’s signature space-policy achievement amounts to “creating the largest money pit in NASA history.”
Nelson’s pet boondoggle compares unfavorably with private alternatives. Today, SpaceX launches rockets for various customers roughly every two weeks. In 2020, it began safely delivering NASA astronauts to the ISS. Launching a payload on its enormous Falcon Heavy rocket costs about $150 million—less than a tenth of the projected SLS expense. And costs keep falling as SpaceX gets better at retrieving and reusing its rocket boosters. Moreover, other firms are close behind in the competition to provide NASA with ever-more-affordable launch services. “SpaceX and some other private companies are just much better at building rockets than NASA,” Berger says.
In short, NASA’s willingness to collaborate with private space ventures marks a turning point in U.S. space history. Much like Operation Warp Speed, which delivered Covid-19 vaccines in record time, the Commercial Crew program shows how much more a government agency can achieve when it harnesses the power of private enterprise.
Nelson’s antipathy toward private space companies faded a bit once SpaceX began launching rockets from Florida—and hiring workers in the state. In fact, the White House press release announcing his nomination retroactively assigns Nelson credit for the success of Commercial Crew. Legislation he sponsored “set NASA on its present dual course of both government and commercial missions,” it says. That’s one way to put it. Another would be to say that, while Nelson’s bill allowed Commercial Crew to move ahead on the shortest possible leash, it also forced NASA to waste billions on an SLS rocket it didn’t want or need.
Given Nelson’s long tenure in the Senate, his confirmation is likely to be a cakewalk. The experts I spoke with hope that, as NASA administrator, he will take a less parochial view of NASA priorities. Certainly, his experience and deep relationships should equip him to be an effective advocate for the agency. And few believe he will be able to unwind NASA’s public-private partnerships. “I think Commercial Crew has advanced too far to back away from,” author Pappalardo says.
The bigger question is how long NASA will continue pouring money into SLS when radically cheaper alternatives are available. Most experts hope the agency will pursue a hybrid approach: allow SpaceX and other private companies to handle the routine work of launching payloads and astronauts, which would free up NASA to focus on what Berger calls “the hard stuff”—planning missions to the moon and Mars; designing deep-space vehicles; and figuring out how to keep crewmembers healthy during missions that might last months, or even years.
Is the 78-year-old Nelson up to this kind of management challenge? Can he finally get space policy right? Let’s hope so. There’s a first time for everything.
Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images