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Nelson Ready For 'New Day' At NASA

Aubrey Gemignan/NASA

Former Florida senator and new NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is hailing a "new day" for space exploration as the United States seeks to return to the Moon and to go beyond. 

Nelson, who flew aboard space shuttle Columbia in 1986, will become the agency’s 14th administrator. During his Senate confirmation hearing, he said there’s a lot of excitement going on at NASA, both from far away and close-up.

“With the flight of the little helicopter, 80 [million] to 100 million miles away, depending on the orbits of Earth and Mars,” said Nelson. “To the return of American astronauts launching on American vehicles from American soil.”

Another milestone is scheduled to occur later this year, when NASA launches the James Webb Telescope – a $9 billion instrument which eventually will succeed the Hubble Telescope, and provide the deepest look yet into deep space.

“The Hubble has already opened up so many new things to us in the universe,” Nelson said. And [the Webb telescope] is going to look back in time, almost to the beginning of the source of light – millions and millions, and billions of light years away.”

Also set for late this year or early 2022 is the agency’s most powerful rocket ever. Nelson cited that to share his vision for NASA’s future.

“To continue for us to explore the heavens with humans and with machines,” he said. “Now, corollary to that is look at what’s being developed in technology, in science, in engineering, and mathematics.”

“Sen. Nelson is a good, personal friend of my family’s; my father and the senator were fraternity brothers at Florida, they went [in as] freshmen at the Florida Legislature together and worked together,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson.

During his weekly news conference, Robinson was asked if, under Nelson’s leadership, NASA could develop a presence in Pensacola. It would not be the first Nelson-Robinson collaboration, as pointed out by the mayor.

“The senator was very instrumental in working with RESTORE and I worked with him to make that happen,” he said. “When we needed to get a disaster declaration after the ’14 flood, he was very instrumental in doing that as well. He’s very supportive of Northwest Florida while he was a senator and I was a [county] commissioner in working with him.”

The city, said Robinson, has positioned itself to deal with whatever comes forward from Blue Origin, Space-X and/or NASA.

“When you look at Space Command that’s going to be just up in Huntsville, not far away,” said the mayor. “We went through that process, we got a lot of good information and there was a lot of good things turned back to us to let us know what we could do. I’d rather see that pay off for us and have some of those things happen right here in Pensacola, dealing with space.”

While conceding that landing the Space Command likely was a bridge too far, the mayor did say there could be the chance to lure the agency’s training program.

“I think what we do here with the Navy is a good fit all the way around; so we think we have a real good place to play,” said Robinson. “We have Blue Origin here with their boat; the Space-X land here. So there are a number of things that we can be very, very good at, doing some of this as we move forward.”

Perhaps the major goal for Bill Nelson as NASA administrator is putting astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. Gene Cernan was the last man to leave his boot prints in the lunar dust during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. To that end, Nelson said they’re almost ready to roll out a new rocket.

“That is going to be the workhorse on the program of going back to the moon and then on to Mars,” said Nelson. “Which was a multi-administration project – that we will see the fulfillment of these programs.”

In 2019, then-vice president Mike Pence challenged NASA to land on the moon the first woman and the next man by 2024. President Joe Biden's administration is backing the same time frame.