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Florida's Senate Race Could Affect Space Policy, Funding

Photo: Kennedy Space Center
Photo: Kennedy Space Center

The Kennedy Space Center receives around $2.6 billion each year from Congress. Lawmakers like Sen. Bill Nelson help steer policy – and money – to the state. Gov. Rick Scott is challenging Nelson for his seat and policy experts are worried that could put Florida space dollars in jeopardy.

When Space Shuttle Columbia launched from the Kennedy Space center on Jan. 12, 1986, the crew of seven included then-Congressman Bill Nelson. The NASA program that sent Nelson to space was a way for politicians to get a hands-on look at the work of the space agency.

[caption id="attachment_92782" align="alignleft" width="250"] Representative Bill Nelson prepares to eat a peeled grapefruit
Credit: NASA[/caption]

The Kennedy Space Center in Florida has launched every human U.S. space mission and dozens of robotic missions. Nelson has played a key role in shaping space policy, said University of Central Florida Political Scientist Aubrey Jewett.

"Because the space program has been so important to Florida, because the federal government has always had a big role in the space program, he sought early on to get on to the science and technology committee, so he could have some say on that," said Jewett.

Nelson is now the ranking member of the Science, Commerce and Transportation committee which steers legislation and funding for NASA, and that means funding for the Kennedy Space Center

But now the Democratic senator is in a tight race to hold on to his seat. His Republican challenger Scott has poured millions of dollars into the campaign. If he wins, he wouldn’t automatically fill Nelson’s seat on the committee, it would be up to GOP leadership to assign that role.

That could open the door for Senators from other states to take the spot, said Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado Boulder and former Obama White House adviser. "That’s one of the key things you would lose is him positioned right now as the node for Senatorial space issues."

[caption id="attachment_92783" align="alignright" width="250"] Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (L) and Governor Rick Scott (R). Photo: NASA[/caption]

WMFE reached out to the Scott campaign for its policy on space, and have not heard back, but Scott is no stranger to the space industry. On his watch, private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have expanded their footprint since the end of the Shuttle program in 2011.

In 2015, Scott announced a partnership with Blue Origin that would mean $200 million invested locally and the addition of 330 jobs.

"Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding cape area have really rebounded since the 2011 low," said  Laura Forczyk, a space policy analyst and founder of Astrolytical. "It’s due in a large part due to state efforts through Space Florida and other organizations to really focus on boosting the economy and job creation.

Space Florida is the agency Scott oversees that courts aerospace business to the state. During Scott's administration, the state has courted other aerospace companies like OneWeb Satellites and forged international partnerships with Brazil and Israel.

"If Scott wins, it’s in Florida’s best interest if he asks for an assignment on the Senate subcommittee to steer federal dollars to the space coast," said Forczyk. "I would think that he almost has to because of the influence Kennedy Space Center has in the nation’s space industry and space activities, there should be a Florida Senator within one of those committees."

On the campaign trail, Nelson and Scott have sparred over healthcare, disaster relief, and the environment – not space policy – but the outcome of this race could have a big impact for Florida’s space coast.

If Nelson loses office and loses his seat on that committee, than NASA would certainly lose a friend and an ally here in Florida," said UCF's Aubrey Jewett.

Recent polls have the candidates within single digits and no clear front-runner.

Brendan covers space news for WMFE, everything from rocket launches to the latest scientific discoveries in our universe. He hosts WMFE's weekly radio show and podcast "Are We There Yet?" which explores human space exploration.