Sen. Bill Nelson likes to cast himself as a champion of NASA and the American space program. Nelson has often spoken eloquently about his desire to see Americans on Mars. However, recent actions taken by the senior senator from Florida suggest that he has become, whether he recognizes it or not, the William Proxmire of the 21st century. Proxmire, a long-serving senator from Wisconsin, waged a relentless war against NASA, even going so far as to offer legislation to cut funding for the Apollo program as early as 1963, shortly before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Proxmire was later instrumental in achieving the premature end of the Apollo program and led fights against the space shuttle and space station programs.
Nelson, as was reported before, is leading a battle to derail the appointment of Jim Bridenstine, a young, reformist congressman, as administrator of NASA, even though he has been endorsed by scientists, the commercial space industry, and even Apollo moonwalker Buzz Aldrin. Now, Nelson has escalated his war against President Trump’s space program by vowing to fight a key element of that effort. He stated in a tweet:
If the administration plans to abruptly pull us out of the International Space Station in 2025, they’re going to have a fight on their hands. This would likely decimate FL’s commercial space industry and hinder our ability to experiment in low-Earth orbit. https://t.co/MdBVwCYHVR
— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) January 25, 2018
Nelson is referring to details of the new direction of NASA that has recently been released to the media. In accordance with President Trump’s desire to send Americans back to the moon, NASA is being directed to form partnerships with the commercial sector as well as international space agencies to extend “U.S. preeminence to, and around, and on the Moon.” The plan involves a Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space and human landings on the lunar surface in the 2020s. Eventually, a lunar base would be established as a center of scientific exploration and commercial development of the moon. The lunar effort would be the opening act for missions into deep space — particularly to Mars.
However, to help pay for the lunar effort, the federal government would have to proceed with “Ending direct federal government support of the ISS by 2025 and transitioning to commercial provision of low Earth orbit (LEO) capabilities.” The move would free up $3-4 billion a year for the return to the moon.
In his zeal to oppose everything that President Trump wants to do, Nelson does not seem to have read the last part of that sentence about commercializing activities in low Earth orbit. The method by which that may be accomplished is not clear. A private firm may take over the NASA portion of the ISS. Another possibility would be to encourage companies like Bigelow Aerospace to proceed with the deployment of a commercial space station where research in low Earth orbit would continue. Nelson’s fears about the decimation of Florida’s blossoming commercial space industry are unfounded. Because of wear and tear, the ISS likely cannot continue to operate past 2028. Some doubt exists that any of the space station partners, particularly Russia, will be willing to commit to the ISS even past 2024. Trump is only making the necessary transition to commercial operations a few years early.
Senator Nelson would no doubt know all of these facts if a NASA administrator happened to be in place who knew how to communicate to members of Congress. Then he would not be so prone to issuing a press release before he thought things through, that without the money freed up from the space station America will not be going back to the moon anytime soon. The effect of Nelson’s vow to fight may be to derail Trump’s effort to get Americans back to the moon, much to the detriment of American leadership in space.
Mark R. Whittington writes frequently about space and politics and has published political studies of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner and is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.