Who Is Bill Nelson? Florida Ex-Senator Rumored To Be Pick for NASA Head

Former Florida Senator Bill Nelson is rumored to be a contender to lead NASA in the Biden administration.

Speculation grew on social media this week after Breaking Defense magazine reported Nelson was a possible candidate due to his "strong relationship" with the president and "congressional savvy" due to his years spent serving as an elected official.

The Democratic Party politician has had a lengthy political career and speculation was rising on Twitter this week as users debated the role.

Clarence William "Bill" Nelson was born in Miami, Florida, on September 29, 1942, and served on active duty in the Army between 1968 and 1970. He became a legislative assistant to Governor Reubin Askew in 1971.

Nelson was first elected to the Florida State House of Representatives in 1972 and won reelection in 1974 and 1976. He was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1978 as a Democrat and served a total of six terms, between 1979 and 1991.

In that time, he became the first member of the House to travel into space. He trained at Johnson Space Center, Houston, in 1985 before flying on the Columbia space shuttle, working as a payload specialist, on the STS-61C mission on January 12, 1986.

RUMINT: Former Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.) is said to be Biden admin pick for NASA administrator, killing several birds with one stone: strong relationship with POTUS, congressional savvy. Pam Melroy is on deck as his deputy, bringing technical chops to bear. @Genevaexpat

— Breaking Defense (@BreakingDefense) February 22, 2021

Nelson took part in a flight that launched a communications satellite. He returned to Earth on January 18.

Nelson was elected to the Senate in 2000 and served three terms after being reelected in 2006 and 2012. He served from January 3, 2001 to January 3, 2019. He was beaten following a campaign by Sen. Rick Scott in November 2018.

In May last year, Jim Bridenstine, who served as NASA administrator under the Trump administration and oversaw a historic SpaceX mission to the International Space Station (ISS), announced that Nelson had joined the NASA Advisory Committee.

Bridenstine said: "He is a true champion for human spaceflight and will add tremendous value as we go to the Moon and on to Mars." Nelson replied: "I look forward to working with you and @NASA to once again send Americans to explore the heavens."

Thank you @JimBridenstine. I look forward to working with you and @NASA to once again send Americans to explore the heavens. https://t.co/JYMN1xnqSh

— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) May 28, 2019

While his potential appointment to NASA's top job remains unconfirmed, Florida Politics reported on Monday that Nelson was on a list of names previously "discussed for prominent roles" in the Biden administration.

According to Breaking Defense magazine, former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy was "on deck as [Nelson's] deputy, bringing technical chops to bear." That's also unconfirmed. The White House and NASA have been contacted for comment by Newsweek.

Melroy, a former Space Shuttle commander, left NASA in August 2019 and later worked as a director at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

NASA has said its "Artemis" program aims to land the first woman and next man on the surface of Earth's moon by 2024 before eventually taking humans to Mars. On February 18, the agency landed the Perseverance rover on the red planet's surface.

Under its Commercial Crew Program, the U.S. space agency has a close relationship with SpaceX, the reusable rocket company led by Elon Musk.

In 2018, Nelson praised the launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket as a "spectacular demonstration of the comeback of Florida's Space Coast," the Miami Herald reported. In his final Senate speech, Nelson spoke about the future of space exploration.

"Imagine a future where those people, perhaps the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of those in primary school today, look back on our era as the time that humanity began to journey outward," Nelson said.

"I believe that as we discover and explore the wonders of the cosmos we will achieve the greatest outcome of all. We will find that our home planet, Earth, and all the life and love that inhabits us, has become even more beautiful and all the more precious."

Sen. Bill Nelson
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) campaigns with former NASA Chief Charlie Bolden at the Orlando Science Center on October 31, 2018 in Orlando, Florida. Nelson has been tipped as the next NASA administrator, but it remains unconfirmed. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty