Mar 23, 2021 - Science

How a political boss could help NASA

Illustration of an astronaut wearing a necktie floating through space

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Having a politician in the top spot at NASA signals the agency will be a priority for the Biden administration, some space industry experts tell Axios.

Why it matters: Bill Nelson, a former senator with President Biden's ear, is the administration's nominee to lead the space agency and could help make NASA a priority for the president if he's confirmed.

  • NASA is often seen as an agency that cuts across partisan lines, inspiring children and helping everyone look to the future, but it's also a political tool with major geopolitical weight.
  • The agency doles out billions in industry contracts and employs about 17,000 people across the country.

Catch up quick: Nelson's nomination was announced last week and has already won support from both sides of the aisle, with Sen. Marco Rubio (R- Fla.) already backing him.

  • Nelson also has the support of former President Donald Trump's NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine.
  • A former senator from Florida, Nelson flew aboard the space shuttle in 1986 and has long advocated for NASA and its spaceflight goals.
  • "I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities," Nelson said in a statement. "Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos."

The big picture: For the most part, NASA's top job has been filled by former astronauts, scientists and business people, not political figures.

  • Nelson and Biden have worked together in the Senate and reportedly have a close relationship, meaning Nelson may be able to make sure the agency gets Biden's attention.
  • "This is a very personal relationship with the President, and that's pretty special for NASA. It's the kind of pick that I think you more typically think about with a high level cabinet official versus historically with NASA," Mike French of the Aerospace Industries Association, told me.

Flashback: Bridenstine, who ran NASA under Trump, is largely considered to have been an effective agency leader even though many were against his nomination at the start, saying the Republican congressman from Oklahoma was too partisan of a choice.

  • "I think Jim Bridenstine really ... proved to people that maybe it's not the worst idea to have an experienced politician running the space agency," Casey Dreier of the Planetary Society told me.

Yes, but: There is potential baggage that comes along with a political NASA administrator.

  • Some have questioned how strongly Nelson supports commercial spaceflight and the agency's current approach to developing space through public/private partnerships.
  • As a senator in 2010, Nelson suggested that money for the Commercial Crew program — which recently saw SpaceX send a astronauts to the International Space Station — would be better spent on the long-delayed, government-developed Space Launch System.
  • But his job as a senator from Florida was very different from what it will be as NASA administrator, according to Dreier.
  • "His job was to represent Florida and to make sure jobs were maintained in Florida; that infrastructure was maintained in Florida," Dreier said. "That ... no longer would be his job as the NASA administrator."

The bottom line: If confirmed, Nelson won't be the first politically-minded administrator of NASA, but if he's successful it could set the stage for more politicians to lead the agency.

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