Bill Nelson says he never imagined he would become administrator of the nation’s space agency, NASA.

“I had no idea,” Nelson said. “As a matter of fact, I grew up in the shadow of the cape, never thinking I would ever have a chance to fly in space.”

Nelson served in both the House and Senate as a Democrat representing Florida. In 1986, Nelson trained and flew with the crew of the space shuttle Columbia and became the second sitting member of Congress to travel to space, after Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah.

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“I flew in the space shuttle. We had 135 flights, two that were catastrophic. The first one, Challenger, was 10 days after our flight landed back on Earth,” Nelson said. “It’s an unforgiving environment. And there you are, white-knuckle time when that baby’s going up and when it’s coming back.”

The space shuttle completed its final mission in 2011. Since then, NASA has begun working with an increasing number of private companies to travel and conduct research in space. He says the partnerships have helped unite Americans.

“Just think how the space history here brought us together. Think when the Soviets beat us, and we were scared because they had the high ground. They had Sputnik, and then they got Yuri Gagarin up first for one orbit,” Nelson said. “But [a few] months later, John Glenn climbed into that Mercury capsule. He shimmied into it, and it’s sitting on top of an Atlas rocket. There was a 20% chance that that thing was going to blow up. And when Glenn was successful for three orbits, that changed everything.”

Nelson said space is part of the American spirit and making the impossible possible.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” President John F. Kennedy said during a speech at Rice University in 1962.

Kennedy’s speech has helped inspire decades of research at NASA. When the agency was created in 1958, Congress put into law that any technology created for space must also be practical for earth.

“Since 1958, we’ve been spinning off these technologies to the public in the forms of new products and services that make our lives better,” said NASA Technology Transfer Program Executive Daniel Lockney. “[The technologies] enhance the U.S. economy, save lives and in other instances are just really cool things that we get as a result of the nation’s investment in this aerospace research.”

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Lockney has worked to transfer NASA inventions or intellectual property to the public sector.

“We get credit for things that we didn’t do, which is a wonderful problem to have,” Lockney said. “Something we did do that we don’t get credit for is, we invented the camera that’s in your cellphone.”

In the 1980s, spacecraft imaging helped launch the digital camera industry using charged devices to create pictures in space. By the next decade, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California worked to create image sensors that used less power and were easier to mass-produce. The result was a small digital computer chip.

“We didn’t know what to do with it,” Lockney said. “Then, Nokia approached us, and they had this wacky idea of putting a camera in a telephone.”

The lightweight, high-resolution camera microchip didn’t require a lot of power and was perfect for spaceflight and handheld personal devices.

“Now, we all have the blessing of taking with our camera a photograph, and it’s an absolutely beautiful photograph,” Nelson said.

New technology is being developed on Earth to advance space flight, but an increasing amount of research and innovation is being done in space. Nelson says astronauts are experimenting at the International Space Station 24/7. Private companies also have been sending astronauts into space for experimenting.

“The additional astronauts coming up are bringing their own [research], many of them sponsored by pharmaceutical companies to do their own. Whenever they want to send it up for much longer, we have our astronauts up there full time,” he said.