CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. -- Rep. Bill Nelson, on board the shuttle Columbia as a congressional observer, grew up in the shadow of the Kennedy Space Center but he says it never occurred to him he would one day fly in space.
The Florida Democrat took off with six crewmates Sunday after six launch delays and although he was not heard from on the first day of the mission he made it clear before blastoff he would be taking extensive notes.
Nelson, whose district includes the Florida shuttleport, is chairman of the House space science and applications subcommittee and he is the second lawmaker to fly in space. Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who chairs a similar committee in the Senate, made the first such flight last April.
Like Garn's mission, Nelson's flight has drawn criticism, which he shrugs off.
'If the implication is that it is an enjoyable experience then yes, it is that,' he said in a pre-launch interview. But he quickly added NASA selected him as 'one of the leaders of the American space program in the Congress' and that the flight would increase his effectiveness.
'It's sort of the difference between trying to relate on how a car engine functions by reading a book and then going in there and actually taking it apart and putting it back together. In one you have a hands-on experience and as a result of that you have so much better understanding of what's going on.'
Nelson, who volunteered to serve as a guinea pig for 10 medical experiments during Columbia's mission, grew up on Florida's east coast and saw the area change as spaceflight became a reality.
'Having come up in that environment, it never occurred to me that I would have the opportunity to fly into space,' said Nelson, a fifth-generation Floridian whose grandparents homesteaded on what is now the north end of the Kennedy Space Center's shuttle runway.
Space agency insiders grumble that Nelson has rubbed astronauts the wrong way and that his late addition to the flight posed an inconvenience to the crew.
But Nelson insists he's on good terms with his crewmates and that his presence aboard the shuttle at taxpayer expense is justifiable.
'I wish I could learn everything about the space transportation system and about NASA,' he said. 'I came into this with seven years experience on the space subcommittee so I didn't start on ground zero.
'But I never had an opportunity to have two months of intense preparation getting to know about the system as well as getting to know the professionals who run the system, both in space and on the ground.'
Nelson was invited to fly on the shuttle by NASA Administrator James Beggs, who was indicted Dec. 2 for allegedly defrauding the government when he was an executive with General Dynamics Corp.
Nelson said his feelings about flying in space were 'a quiet acceptance and thankfulness for this opportunity.'
'There's not a flicker of doubt in my family that this is not the right thing to do,' he said of his wife Grace and their two children, aged 8 and 9.
Nelson was a captain in the Army Reserves from 1965 through 1971 and was on active duty from 1968 to 1970. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University and a law degree from the University of Virginia before he was admitted to the Florida Bar in 1968.
In 1972, he was elected to the Florida Legislature and served six years before his 1978 election to Congress.