Bill Nelson of NASA speaks at commencement

Administrator Bill Nelson holds NASA’s top office. After serving 30 years in Congress, Nelson was nominated by Biden in 2021. // Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

On Dec. 15, the Institute welcomed Bill Nelson, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), on its campus to speak at the Fall 2023 commencement.

After serving during the war in Vietnam, Nelson’s political career began in 1972 as a representative in the Fla. state congress. He eventually transitioned to a national role, serving as both a senator and representative in the U.S. Congress for over two decades. 

A fifth-generation Floridian, Nelson served on and chaired the House Space Subcommittee for six years and was an influential member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

Starting in 2019, Nelson transitioned from his role as a congressman to assist on NASA’s advisory counsel, and in 2021, he was nominated by President Biden and unanimously confirmed by the Senate for the position of NASA administrator.

During his stay on campus, Nelson interviewed with the Technique to reflect on his life’s work, NASA as an organization and provide some encouragement to aspiring dreamers.

“My involvement with NASA over the years, first from the standpoint of being a part of the [space]crew and flying and then over the years handling the technical and legislative details,” Nelson said on his unique career path that allowed him to experience the logistics of space exploration from both a liberal arts and STEM perspective. “Most administrators are technical folks … I think almost all the others were either PhDs or [academics],” Nelson said.

However, Nelson felt it was his staff’s inclusive and family-like nature that set it apart from previous administrations. 

Nelson explained that, when he was initially nominated, he took a proactive stance on having a woman considered for the Deputy Administrator position, refusing his nomination unless the request was met.

Pamela Melroy, Air Force colonel and astronaut commander currently serves as the Deputy Administrator, effectively second-in-command at NASA after the Administrator. Nelson added that Jim Free, another astronaut commander, was his direct selection for Associate Administrator, the third most senior position within the organization.

“So it ends up that the three of us at the top of the structure of NASA have all flown in space and we operate as a crew. A crew looks out after each other, and each has its own specialty, but each of us looks out for each other. That’s what’s been unique about this particular administration,” Nelson said.

On NASA’s future, Nelson explained that while the organization is open to many different pathways and journeys, ultimately, “our goals are to explore and try to understand who we are, where we are, what we are in this vastness of the universe,” Nelson said.

Transitioning to his personal experience, Nelson recalled a memorable moment with the organization and the impact it had on his legacy as a congressman and NASA Administrator.

“My all time favorite memory is looking out the window of the spacecraft back at our planet. It is so beautiful and colorful and creative, and yet, it looks fragile. I decided I wanted to be a better steward of our planet when I came back, so that has informed a lot of my public service as an environmentalist,” Nelson said.

In his closing remarks, Nelson spoke briefly on his interactions with Tech’s students. “Their enthusiasm and their obvious brilliance just really gives me a great deal of hope and confidence,” Nelson said.

During his commencement speech, Nelson called upon the graduating class to answer the question “what is your moon shot?” According to Nelson, the moon shot comes down to “accomplishing big things, hard things.”

The Technique reached out to a few students to ask about their moon shots and how the Institute is helping them achieve them.

“My moon shot has been to further the Clean Energy Initiative of the United States. Ever since I had a school project in middle school where we had to research a [form of] energy, I’ve been really into solar energy,” said Abhinav Iyer, third-year ME.

Iyer explained that outside of relevant courses, the Institute has provided him with the opportunity to “creatively” learn through resources such as campus hack-a-thons, access to professors, solar industry professionals and cutting edge research at the forefront of the field.

“[These are] opportunities that I wouldn’t have necessarily gotten had it not been for the college that I’d been at,” Iyer concluded.

Bryn Merrell, MS AE, told the Technique that her moon shot is to become an astronaut. In reflecting on how the Institute is helping her achieve that goal, she spoke on the notable challenges that prospective astronauts face.

“[Being an astronaut] requires that you be really good at math and science and engineering, so I figured going to one of the best schools in the country for aerospace engineering would be a great place to start,” Merrell said.

Merrell continued, speaking on the resources she has benefited from outside of her coursework.

“I have gotten a chance to do research and intern at the Johnson Space Center [at NASA] since I’ve been here. Obviously, there’s no guarantee; you’re rolling the dice because it’s really hard to become an astronaut but Georgia Tech has helped in my education, and I’m really grateful for these opportunities and the amazing people I’ve met here,” Merrell said.

Whether their moon shot is to revolutionize how the sun is brought to the earth or to actually travel on the moon, Jackets can take pride in their hard work as they continue to strive towards their goals with enthusiasm and brilliance.