By Yaël Ossowski | Florida Watchdog

ST. PETERSBURG — As one of only three lawmakers to fly in space, U.S. Sen.Bill Nelson is the first to admit he has a special relationship with the government’s space program.

In 1986, Nelson joined the crew ofColumbia as a payload specialist and has been a stern advocate of the space shuttle program ever since his time in Florida public office, providing plenty of support through federal earmarks and promises to protect the workforce of the Space Coast.

The National Aeronautic Space Agencyeven lists the two-term Florida Democratic senator as “the leading congressional expert on NASA,” on its website, providing a full biography with information dating to his high school days.

But while countless other politicians on Capitol Hill are forgoing the funding of pet projects for the sake of a serious talk on deficit and debt, Nelson is continuing his push to throw federal dollars at the fading space program.

The latest NASA budget proposed by President Barack Obama recommended spending $17.1 billion, a 3.8 percent reduction from the previous year. The final budget, however, has not been approved.

These programs are not only being questioned by budget economists, but they also are set to allocate millions of dollars in contracts to companies that contribute directly to Nelson’s Senate campaign.

In 2011, Nelson directed more than $41 million to private companies competitively bidding for NASA contracts, a Florida Watchdog investigation has found, allowing the senator to continue to tout his support for space exploration and the numerous jobs for engineers and technicians at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral.

These funds were allocated in spite of the closure of NASA’s shuttle program, which now relies on Russian rockets to bring astronauts to the International Space Station.

“Without question, the long-term goal of our space program, human space program right now is the goal of going to Mars in the decade of the 2030s,” Nelson told a crowd at the unveiling of the Orion capsule in Cape Canaveral in July.

The capsule will shuttle astronauts to the red planet in the next two decades, Nelson predicts, as long as Congress can find the money to fund it.

“We still need to refine how we’re going to go there. We’ve got to develop a lot of technologies. We’ve got to figure out how and where we’re going to stop along the way.”

Nelson’s gifts to industries with pending NASA contracts also follows the patterns of an earlier Florida Watchdog investigation, which revealed key donors to the senator’s campaign receiving tens of millions of dollars in personal earmarks.

The political action committee of DRS Technologies Inc., an aerospace defense contractor in New Jersey, has poured nearly a quarter millions dollars — $244,917 — into the Nelson’s campaigns in the past 10 years alone.

From 2008 to 2010, Nelson earmarked more than $8 million for the company, the result of a large bidding war over parts distribution for the third-generationBradley fighting vehicle, used by the U.S. and Saudi Arabian military and one of the most active vehicles overseas, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Nelson’s office did not return calls or emails to Florida Watchdog.

The emphasis on increased spending is likely to influence Nelson’s Senate race against U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-District 14, whose campaign is focused on the Florida senator’s contribution to deficit spending during his 12-year career on Capitol Hill.

On Aug. 16, Space Policy Online, a space program advocacy website, lamented that it could “lose one of its key NASA proponents,” if Nelson loses the election.

The U.S. Senate seat now leans Democratic, boosted by recent gains in Obama‘sre-election campaign in the Sunshine State, according to political science professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the election predictor run by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

Read more: Florida Watchdog