Q&A – NASA & SpaceX – Who Is Driving The Space Program?

Today’s entry: Brian, I was thinking about the future of the space program recently when Bill Nelson was confirmed as the new director. While I think it’s a nice gesture to have someone who’s been to space running the program, I wonder why someone like Elon Musk isn’t tapped to lead NASA. I think NASA would be well served by having a visionary rather than someone whose time has come and gone. What do you think?

Bottom Line: You raise an interesting point about who would be best to lead NASA and also perhaps some of the potential pitfalls that may come with political appointments. Are we really getting the best leaders for key organizations? In the case of Bill Nelson, it’s worth noting that while he is a political appointment of President Biden, he was confirmed by unanimous consent by the Senate, so there wasn’t even one Senator who had an objection to his nomination. As to whether Nelson is the most effective choice is a valid question, however. Here’s the actual job description of the NASA Administrator: 

The Administrator serves as NASA's chief executive officer, accountable to the President for the leadership necessary to achieve the Agency's mission. This leadership requires articulating the Agency's vision, setting its programmatic and budget priorities and internal policies, and assessing Agency performance.

Notice it doesn’t say it’s the Administrator’s role to set NASA’s agenda but to be able to articulate it and provide leadership to achieve it. In other words, the Elon Musk’s of NASA are working within the operation, not running it. And something cited within the job description is a key as to why Bill Nelson has the potential to be an effective leader for NASA. "budget priorities".

Arguably the greatest NASA headwind during the past decade wasn’t “brain drain” but rather a lack of resources. NASA saw net budget decreases under the Obama administration dropping the agency from $17.8 billion in 2008 to a low of $16.9 billion by 2013. After a series of budget increases during the Trump administration, the agency’s budget is up to $22.6 billion most recently. However, its percentage of the overall budget remains low. That’s where Bill Nelson has the potential to be especially effective. 

Given Nelson’s 30+ years in Congress, including serving as a friend to Joe Biden, he knows how the political process works and how to sell an agency’s priorities to Congress. This will likely be his most important role as NASA Administrator. The beauty of the current setup with NASA’s public-private partnerships is that you don’t need Elon Musk, or like minds inside of the agency, to help drive the agenda. What is important is that it’s funded. Approximately half of SpaceX’s revenue is derived directly from NASA. NASA’s funding is one of the most important cogs in SpaceX’s ambitious puzzle. 

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Email: brianmudd@iheartmedia.com

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