OPINION: How Sen. Bill Nelson Learned To Stop Worrying And Love This NASA Administrator

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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The Senate Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness recently held a hearing entitled, “Global Space Race: Ensuring the United States Remains the Leader in Space.” As is his privilege as the ranking member of the full Senate Commerce Committee, Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, attended the hearing.

Nelson was seen schmoozing with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, the sole witness, before the hearing and participated for just a few minutes during the proceedings before departing for some other appointment.

Nelson also left an opening statement that had some very interesting things to say about Bridenstine:

But, I wanted to be here to welcome you, Mr. Bridenstine, in your first appearance before the committee as the administrator.

Well, I hear you’ve settled into the job and have hit the ground running. I have received positive reviews from people at the agency on your efforts thus far.

Administrator Bridenstine, thank you for the continuing commitment to keep NASA apolitical, and thank you for listening to the smart and dedicated space professionals at NASA. I look forward to continuing to work with you — because it is an exciting time for the space program.

The fulsome praise by Nelson for Bridenstine seems strange for those who have followed space politics. Less than a year ago, Senator Nelson led a full-throated effort to deny Bridenstine confirmation as administrator of NASA with a vicious campaign of attacks and smears that rivaled anything that Joe McCarthy conducted.

Led by Nelson, Democratic senators charged Bridenstine with being everything from a climate change denier to a misogynist and homophobe. Bridenstine’s status as an elected congressman also came under attack.

Nelson was so effective in his obstructive behavior that he delayed Bridenstine’s confirmation until April. Only the resignation of then Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot and a looming leadership crisis at NASA caused Nelson’s fellow senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, a Republican, to switch his vote from a no to a yes.

What caused the change of heart? Bridenstine, an experienced and skilled politician, reached out to his Democratic opponents and has won over quite a few of them. During the confirmation fight, the then-congressman vowed to make Nelson his “best friend.” Bridenstine seems to have succeeded.

Of course, Bridenstine’s skills can only go so far. Nelson must have keenly felt the defeat of his efforts to keep the Republican conservative out of NASA. He is also, however, facing a close election with the current Republican Gov. Rick Scott gunning for his seat.

And so we come to another part of Nelson’s statement:

And, regarding infrastructure, Administrator Bridenstine, I sent you a letter in June requesting your personal attention to the matter of NASA’s Indian River Bridge.  To put it plainly, deterioration of this bridge jeopardizes our access to space.

I’ve spoken with Secretary Wilson on the matter, and I’ve amended the National Defense Authorization Act so that the Air Force can contribute to addressing the problem.  But NASA owns the bridge, so you need to lead the way. I’ve also made sure my colleagues on the appropriations committee understand the issue, so they will be looking for your plan to replace the bridge.

As Florida Today notes, Nelson is being very truthful when he states that the Indian River Bridge, which links the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral to the rest of Florida, needs replacing and soon. Its replacement is vital to keep America’s spaceport running and expanding.

Of course, if Nelson can help make that replacement happen, by being Administrator Bridenstine’s “best friend” then so much the better. He would have a classic argument for any senator up for reelection in that he can get things done and provide infrastructure for his state along with jobs the bridge will create. That business of Bridenstine being not fit to be in charge of NASA — well, that is in the past.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study 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.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.