Bill Nelson, the soon-to-be former senator from Florida, gave his farewell speech to the Senate on his favorite subject: how he saved the U.S. space program from ruin. The speech was partly maudlin platitudes, partly name dropping, and partly a good pat on Nelson’s own back. He failed to mention a couple of things, including the fact that NASA is headed back to the moon and that the Obama-era journey to Mars is defunct.
While the senator did touch on his experience as a space junketer, he omitted some crucial details. In January 1986, Nelson, then a sitting congressman, flew on the space shuttle Columbia as a payload specialist. Most people who flew on NASA missions at the time had spent years as military test pilots or had excelled as scientists. Nelson was the chair of the House Space Subcommittee and thus had a great deal of say about space agency funding.
NASA was developing a program to fly non-astronauts on the shuttle, the theory being that the public would be more engaged if ordinary people could be seen in space. Another politician, Jake Garn, a Republican senator from Utah, had already flown.
On the one hand, the citizen in space program was envisioned to draw upon people with useful skills. Christa McAuliffe, who died on the space shuttle Challenger soon after Nelson’s flight, was a teacher. She would have given lessons while in space for the edification of millions of school children. Sen. Garn had been a military pilot and the experiments done on him to study space sickness are widely acknowledged as advancing our understanding of the phenomenon.
Nelson, on the other hand, was trained as a lawyer and had been a politician since the early 70s. Such was the resentment of his fellow astronauts about the way he had gotten a berth on a space shuttle mission, that they gave the congressman the nickname “ballast.”
Nelson tried to be generous to NASA as a congressman and then a senator, especially where spending for the Kennedy Space Center was concerned. He was not able to save the deep space exploration programs proposed by both presidents Bush nor keep the space shuttle fleet from being retired, however.
Nelson’s career as a space senator took an ugly turn when President Trump nominated then-Congressman Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, to be NASA administrator. Bridenstine was an atypical candidate to lead the space agency. He was not a former astronaut like Nelson’s friend Charles Bolden, nor had he been an executive in a big aerospace firm such as Mike Griffin or Dan Goldin. Bridenstine’s education was in business, and he had served as a naval aviator in combat missions over Iraq and Afghanistan. Most important, from Nelson’s point of view, the senator from Florida had not vetted him.
When Bridenstine’s nomination came up before the Senate Commerce Committee, Nelson, as ranking member, led a full-throated assault on the Oklahoma congressman’s nomination by the Democratic members. Nelson’s objection, ironically, was that Bridenstine was a politician and not an “aerospace professional.” Other Democratic senators were not as decorous, accusing the young congressman of being homophobic, for example, due to his opposition to same-sex marriage. Bridenstine also got into trouble for his climate change skepticism.
While the Senate Commerce Committee voted favorably on Bridenstine’s confirmation on a party-line basis, the congressman’s fate was in limbo for months because Nelson had persuaded Florida’s other senator, Republican Marco Rubio, to also oppose his nomination. Rubio’s opposition appears to have been personal, because of ads Bridenstine had cut during the 2016 presidential campaign attacking Rubio, then a candidate, on behalf of Sen. Ted Cruz.
The impasse lasted from late autumn into the middle of spring, with neither side budging. Then NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, announced his retirement, throwing the space agency into a leadership crisis. Rubio reluctantly supported Bridenstine, who was then confirmed by the full Senate.
Since the confirmation fight, Bridenstine has become a well-respected NASA head, using social media and his political skills to sell President Trump’s return to the moon program. He has become a diplomat, signing agreements with a variety of international space agencies, most recently Canada. Bridenstine has even won over some of his former Democratic opponents. To be fair, even Nelson gave the administrator some faint praise, suggesting that his previous judgment may have been a little hasty.
Bill Nelson’s fall during the recent midterms has thus become Shakespearean in its grandeur and irony. Nelson, age 76, is realizing the old adage that all political careers end in failure. So his has in a spectacular fashion.
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