Nitric oxide (NO) produced in the polar middle and upper atmosphere by energetic particle precipitation depletes ozone in the mesosphere and, following vertical transport in the winter polar vortex, in the stratosphere. Medium energy electron (MEE) ionization by 30–1000 keV electrons during geomagnetic storms may have a significant role in mesospheric NO production. However, questions remain about the relative importance of direct NO production by MEE at altitudes ~60–90 km versus indirect NO originating from auroral ionization above 90 km. We investigate potential drivers of NO variability in the southern‐hemisphere mesosphere and lower thermosphere during 2013–14. Contrasting geomagnetic activity occurred during the two austral winters, with more numerous moderate storms in the 2013 winter. Ground‐based millimeter‐wave observations of NO from Halley, Antarctica are compared with measurements by the Solar Occultation For Ice Experiment (SOFIE) space‐borne spectrometer. NO partial columns over the altitude range 65–140 km from the two observational datasets show large day to day variability and significant disagreement, with Halley values on average 49% higher than the corresponding SOFIE data. SOFIE NO number densities, zonally averaged over geomagnetic latitudes ‐59°to ‐65°, are up to 3×108 cm‐3 higher in the winter of 2013 compared to 2014. Comparisons with a new version of the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model, which includes detailed D‐region ion chemistry (WACCM‐SIC) and MEE ionization rates, show that the model underestimates NO in the winter lower mesosphere whereas thermospheric abundances are too high. This indicates the need to further improve and verify WACCM‐SIC with respect to MEE ionization, thermospheric NO chemistry, and vertical transport.