Sen. Bill Nelson launched into a full-throated defense of bipartisanship and the nation's space program during a confirmation hearing for Donald Trump's pick to lead NASA on Wednesday.
Nelson, the only sitting member of Congress who has been to space, took Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine to task for his past comments that were critical of Sen. Marco Rubio's role in crafting a comprehensive immigration bill with Democrats in 2013.
"You made television commercials attacking my friend and fellow Senator from Florida, Marco Rubio, deriding his work to find common ground on immigration and claiming he was working to make America less safe," Nelson said during his opening statement. He also criticized Bridenstine for his attacks on former House Speaker John Boehner and Sen. John McCain for working with Democrats to craft legislation.
"NASA represents the best of what we can do as a people," Nelson said. "NASA is one of the last refuges from partisan politics. NASA needs a leader who will unite us, not divide us. Respectfully, Congressman Bridenstine, I don’t think you’re that leader."
The administrator of NASA is tasked with running the nation's space program and conducting research, and the position is usually given to someone with a background in research and science instead of an elected official.
Rubio also voiced displeasure at Bridenstine's nomination when it was first announced in September, telling Politico Florida "it could be devastating for the space program."
"Obviously, being from Florida, I'm very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission," Rubio said. "It's the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics and it's at a critical juncture in its history."
Though Bridenstine's nomination has been opposed by many Democrats and some Republicans, the Oklahoma congressman has received endorsements from space industry groups along with Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon.
"NASA is at a crucial time in its history, preparing to explore Deep Space again for the first time in forty-five years," Bridenstine said. "To do this sustainably, we must develop a consensus-driven agenda, based on national interests."
Nelson flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 1986, 10 days before the space shuttle Challenger exploded in midair, killing all the astronauts on board. Columbia itself disintegrated during re-entry in 2003, killing all the astronauts on board.
"It is certainly no secret how passionate I am about NASA having qualified and effective leadership," Nelson said. "This passion comes from a deep respect I have for NASA and for everything the space program does to advance our national security, our economy, our understanding of cosmos and of ourselves, and for the hope and inspiration that NASA provides to all. It also comes from having witnessed, very directly, the tragic consequences when NASA leadership has failed us."
Nelson is up for reelection in 2018 and is likely to face a challenge from Gov. Rick Scott.