Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things, and he's out of chewing gum

Bill Nelson came to NASA to do two things, and he’s out of chewing gum

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been a steady hand for the space agency.
Enlarge / NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has been a steady hand for the space agency.


Not for the first time, I was wrong. And going into an interview earlier this month with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, I knew it.

“Before asking questions, I just want to say something,” I said at the start of our discussion. “I wrote critical things about you when you were made administrator. And I was just wrong about them.”

Nelson chuckled in response.

“I have to say that as a politician you get used to criticism,” he said. “If I remembered all the criticism I received over the years, I would be a hopeless case. I get enough criticism at home from coaching that I get from Grace Nelson, and I remember those criticisms better But the ones in politics and professional life, I don’t even remember.”

President Biden nominated Nelson to become NASA’s administrator on March 21, 2021. At the time, Nelson seemed too old for a rapidly evolving space agency. He had also been a critic of the commercial space industry to which the agency was increasingly turning for lower-cost services. And he had harshly criticized the previous administrator, Jim Bridenstine, saying that a politician should not run the space agency. (Nelson was a politician for 45 years before heading NASA.) My story about his appointment reflected those concerns.

None of this mattered in the appointment process. Nelson’s former colleagues in the US Senate, where he served for 18 years, quickly confirmed him to the post by voice vote.

Since then, Nelson has led NASA like a statesman. Behind the scenes, he made sure he had two competent lieutenants to help him. Pam Melroy, the only second woman to command a space shuttle, became its deputy administrator. Nelson’s friend and another former shuttle commander, Bob Cabana, was tapped to become associate administrator. Nelson delegated the technical details to them. And he did what he does best: chat.

Along the way, he managed to charm just about everyone, including some of us in the media who were skeptical. It was, by no means, perfect. He often speaks in platitudes and generalities. But it does the job. Ask almost anyone who came into contact with Nelson during his tenure as director and you’ll get some variation of “He’s just a really nice guy who delivered for the agency.”

Nelson doesn’t deserve credit for all of the space agency’s accomplishments in the 18 months since he took over as administrator. Many of these projects were started years or decades ago. But he got 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 long-delayed Artemis I mission, kicking off NASA astronauts’ return to deep space
  • Preserving the International Space Station’s fragile partnership with Russia in the tumult of Russia’s war on Ukraine
  • The DART impact mission is a success, finally fulfilling NASA’s mandate to demonstrate an ability to deflect an asteroid
  • Ensure full funding for the Artemis program, including spacesuits and SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander

Considering the above achievements, it’s safe to say that 2022 has been NASA’s best year since 1969, when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. Moreover, the future is bright for the space agency. For its scientific leadership, NASA officials can cite a series of ongoing science mission successes – the Ingenuity the helicopter is still flying on Mars after more than a year, for example – and a pipeline of upcoming exploration missions that include 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 pathway for human exploration of the Moon and perhaps, one day, Mars with the Artemis program.

Nelson had the good sense to double on Artemis, which was created by his predecessor, Bridenstine. Too often, new administrations and new administrators have trashed the work of those who came before them, especially when they are from a different political party. But Nelson has been singing the praises of Artemis since day one. And it has also been true to its goal of sustainability.

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