Democratic senators fired hardballs during Wednesday’s nomination hearing for the Trump administration’s choice to lead NASA, questioning his past stances on climate change as well as his credentials, politics, fairness, and management skills.
However, the nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), painted a picture of himself managing NASA as an apolitical agency guided by science. He also positioned himself a bit closer than he had been to the scientific consensus on climate change, although he did not go far enough, according to some. In addition, he gave assurances that he would strive to uphold scientific integrity at NASA.
Bridenstine, in his testimony at the hearing held by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said that his intention is “to build off the work accomplished by the great people at NASA during the last administration and to move forward by following the guidance of the NASA Transition Authorization Act, appropriations legislation, and the science decadal surveys.” The act, which authorized funding for NASA and received bipartisan support, was signed into law in March.
“NASA is at a crucial time in its history. Humanity is ready to go to deep space for the first time in 45 years,” said Bridenstine, who would be the first elected official to serve as NASA administrator. “To do so sustainably, we must develop a consensus-driven agenda based on national interests.”
Keeping Politics out of NASA
At the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the committee, said that the NASA administrator “should be nonpartisan,” and he charged Bridenstine with a record of divisiveness in Congress and with advocating discriminatory policies, a point that Sen. Patty Murray earlier had highlighted. Nelson questioned whether Bridenstine has the leadership skills to bring people together. “Unity is so important at NASA instead of division,” Nelson said, adding that the success of NASA missions and programs can depend on unity.
Bridenstine, who was elected to Congress in 2012 and serves on the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee on Armed Services, acknowledged that “representing the first district of Oklahoma and being NASA administrator are very different things.” He pledged to make sure that NASA remains apolitical, but he also said that his ability to work with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle could benefit NASA.
Pressing the Nominee on Climate Change
Bridenstine labeled carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and said that “human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing.” However, he refused to say that human activity is the primary cause of climate change. “It’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors, and we’re still learning more about that every day,” Bridenstine said.
He added, “What we have to do is make sure as leaders that we keep the debate [about climate change] dispassionate, that it is driven by the science. And should I be confirmed as the NASA administrator, it would be my highest ambition that science would drive the direction of NASA and the science mission directorates.”
In his testimony, Bridenstine also committed to maintaining a culture at the agency that does not compromise scientific integrity. He said that he would work to ensure that research by NASA employees is protected from political interference, including science related to climate change.
Not Far Enough
Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Eos that it was “troubling” that Bridenstine “missed an important opportunity to acknowledge the scientific consensus on climate change.” She said that because the consensus is so strong and because climate change is such an important aspect of NASA’s work, “it is critical that a NASA administrator understand that consensus.”
Licker did, however, say she was pleased with Bridenstine’s support for agency scientists to talk freely about their work and his commitment to rely on decadal surveys. “We are really hoping that he will stick to the commitment that he made to keep politics out of science,” she said. “We are wondering how to square the circle of that along with his reluctance to accept the consensus on climate change.”
John Logsdon, professor emeritus and founder of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University in Washington, D. C., thought Bridenstine “did a good job of staying out of trouble” during Wednesday’s hearing.
“He doesn’t fit the idealized profile, but number one, he wants the job, he’s thought hard about the requirements of the job and the requirements of the space program, and he brings a very positive attitude toward the organization,” Logsdon told Eos. “Given the track record of the Trump administration, so far, they could have picked much worse. That’s kind of backhanded praise.”
Logsdon said the agency needs a sense that the president supports the agency’s mission and is willing to commit resources to its achievement. “The key issue is whether Bridenstine can work well with the Trump administration, with the [National] Space Council, et al., to provide not only the words but the resources that NASA needs in order to do its various missions well,” he said. “With the support of the White House and Congress on one side and the NASA workforce on the other, he is perfectly capable of doing an excellent job.”
Logsdon did note that Bridenstine has not previously dealt with a complex and large organization in a managerial role. He added that Bridenstine’s “vulnerability is assuring the relevant communities that he’s not a climate denier, and I think he did a perfectly reasonable job of that.”
He recommended that the science community should support Bridenstine once he gets in office, assuming that he is confirmed. “Some elements of the Trump administration are more skeptical of climate change research than Jim Bridenstine came out to be today. So fighting for his missions, fighting for his Earth observation budget is going to be a challenge.”
Timetable for Confirmation
“The Dems were trying to rough up the NASA nominee,” committee chair Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) told reporters after the hearing. “I think he weathered it quite well,” including questions about scientific integrity and Earth science, Thune said.
“Earth science,” Thune said, “is part of NASA’s mission with all the satellites and all that, and I thought his responses recognize the importance of that role at NASA.” In his testimony, Bridenstine highlighted the importance of a number of NASA missions, including Earth science missions, which Bridenstine said “will help us better understand our changing planet.”
Thune indicated his hope that the committee will vote on the nomination at a markup next week. He assumes that Bridenstine will get confirmed by the full Senate, although he didn’t predict when that might happen. “I think it’s all a function of floor time [in the Senate] and how cooperative the Dems want to be,” Thune said. “I suspect they may want to play some games with this one on the floor, but we’ll see.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer