Sen. Bill Nelson was sworn in as the new NASA administrator on May 3 by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The ceremony was conducted at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington and included former administrators Charles Bolden and Jim Bridenstine, who attended virtually.
Nelson was nominated by President Joe Biden on April 19 to fill the vacancy left by a departed Bridenstine. His nomination was followed by a smooth confirmation hearing on April 21. Just over a week later on April 29, Nelson was unanimously confirmed by the Senate clearing the way for him to be sworn in as the agency’s 14th administrator.
During his confirmation hearing, Nelson did not lay out a clear vision for his upcoming tenure and received little to no prompting from the Senate Commerce Committee to clarify his position. What little insight into his vision for the agency that he did provide suggests that Nelson will look to maintain the status quo.
“If you ask me what is my vision for the future of NASA, it is for us to continue exploring the heavens with humans and machines. There is a lot of excitement,” said Nelson.
One of the first major challenges for the incoming NASA administrator will be to manage a stalled Human Landing System (HLS) procurement process.
The contract for the first crewed flight to the surface of the Moon since Apollo 17 in 1972 was awarded to SpaceX on April 16. The award received almost immediate protest with both Dynetics and the Blue Origin-led National Team filling formal objections with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).
On March 30, NASA announced that work on the HLS contract would be suspended until the GAO reached a decision.
“Pursuant to the GAO protests, NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS (human landing system) contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” the agency said.
The HLS contract is a key element for NASA’s push to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2024. The vehicle that will be produced under the agreement will be utilised to ferry astronauts from the Lunar Gateway, a space station that will be constructed in lunar orbit, to the surface of the Moon.
If Nelson is unable to rapidly get the contract moving again, the already challenging 2024 target will be all but impossible.