Bill Nelson: Former astronaut and senator nominated as Nasa chief

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Bill Nelson, a former astronaut and US senator, has been nominated to be the next head of Nasa.

The 78-year-old is seen as a moderate Democrat, and his nomination by President Joe Biden on Friday drew bipartisan praise.

He will need to be confirmed in the Senate before he can take up the role.

Mr Nelson said he was “honoured” to be picked to lead the US space agency, adding that he would “help lead Nasa into an exciting future”.

In a statement, the White House said he was “known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space programme” for many years. “Almost every piece of space and science law has had his imprint,” it said.

The Republican Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, said: “I cannot think of anyone better to lead Nasa.”

In a statement, Mr Nelson said Nasa’s workforce “radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit.” He added: “The Nasa team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”

Mr Nelson was a driving force behind Nasa’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which was conceived in the wake of an Obama-era overhaul of the US space programme.

He will succeed Jim Bridenstine, who led the agency for two years under the Trump administration.

Mr Bridenstine earned widespread praise for his efforts to promote Nasa programmes – in particular, its Artemis venture, which will see astronauts return to the Moon in the 2020s before mounting a mission to Mars.

“Bill Nelson is an excellent pick for Nasa Administrator,” Mr Bridenstine said, adding that the former Florida senator had the “political clout” to collaborate with different government offices as well as members of Congress.

“He has the diplomatic skills to lead an international coalition sustainably to the Moon and on to Mars,” he said. “The Senate should confirm Bill Nelson without delay.”

Mr Nelson was among those who initially criticised Mr Bridenstine’s confirmation in 2018, saying: “The administrator must be a leader who has the ability to bring us together… on a shared vision for future space exploration.”

The Oklahoma senator had no formal qualifications in science and engineering, and there were concerns he would politicise the non-partisan agency.

It is notable that, following Mr Bridenstine’s successful tenure at Nasa, the Biden administration has opted to appoint another politician as the agency’s head – albeit a former astronaut with a long history of working on space issues.

Agencies

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