Science Policy & Funding News

Senate OK’s New NASA Head by Razor-Thin Margin

Bridenstine, the first politician to lead the agency, is urged to run NASA in a nonpartisan manner and to support its science missions.

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Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the Trump administration’s embattled choice to be NASA administrator, squeaked by with Senate approval in a vote of 50–49 along party lines on Thursday afternoon following a dramatic procedural vote, also along party lines, on Wednesday when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) dropped his opposition to the Oklahoma congressman’s long-sought quest to lead the space agency.

The Senate’s confirmation vote for a NASA administrator “has never been this close,” Roger Launius, a former NASA chief historian, told Eos. “That’s because NASA is not traditionally a place where there is a battle over partisan politics. This is the first instance in which there really has been.”

Launius added, “One of the things that [Bridenstine] is going to have to do is build some bridges with the folks who were dead set against him.”

The First Politician to Lead NASA

Bridenstine, a nonscientist who watched his bid to lead NASA languish since he was nominated on 2 September—and renominated on 8 January at the start of a new session of Congress—will be the first politician to hold the position once he is sworn in.

Having served in Congress since 2012, Bridenstine has long had an interest in space. Last April, he sponsored the American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945), which focuses on the need to project military strength, encourage commercial space innovation, and promote stability and mission clarity at NASA. A member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Bridenstine previously served as a U.S. Navy pilot and as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium.

Upon his confirmation, Bridenstine said in a statement that he looks forward “to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the President’s vision for American leadership in space.” Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the National Space Council, tweeted, “We look forward to working with Jim Bridenstine to restore America’s proud legacy of leadership in space-essential to our nat’l security & prosperity.”

A Rocky Road

Democrats fought against his confirmation on a number of grounds. Many worried that Bridenstine might politicize the agency and also were concerned about some of his earlier statements—which Bridenstine has tried to walk back—expressing skepticism about human-induced climate change. Critics also pointed to other comments by Bridenstine that they said are divisive.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, which held Bridenstine’s nomination hearing, said in a tweet, “The @NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional—not a politician. He or she must also be a leader who has the ability to bring us together on a shared vision for future space exploration.” A tweet by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) was scathing, stating, “If Rep. Bridenstine doesn’t understand basic science about our planet, how can he lead an agency dedicated to science and discovery beyond Earth?”

And Rubio gave only grudging approval of Bridenstine. “While I wish the president would have nominated a space professional to run NASA, the unexpected April 30 retirement of the acting administrator would leave NASA, an agency whose mission is vital to Florida, with a gaping leadership void unless we confirm a new administrator,” Rubio said in a statement, referring to Robert Lightfoot, who has led NASA since 20 January 2017 as the longest-serving acting NASA administrator. “Because of this I decided to support the nomination of Rep. Bridenstine. I expect him to lead NASA in a non-political way and to treat Florida fairly.”

A Smear Job?

Other Republicans wholeheartedly supported Bridenstine and dismissed criticism of him as false or overblown. On the Senate floor just prior to the vote, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) touted Bridenstine’s experience, background, and vision and said that “blind partisanship cannot be the only reason that drives votes in this chamber.”

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said of Bridenstine’s detractors, “I’ve never seen a smear campaign like that.”

An Opportunity to Move Forward

Policy experts said they hope Bridenstine succeeds in his new position and is an advocate for NASA’s science missions. Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, a nonprofit working to advance space science and exploration, said the group has had “a productive relationship with Mr. Bridenstine in the past, and have found him willing to engage on a variety of important issues facing the space and science community.”

He told Eos that the close Senate vote “is clearly a sign of the current partisan political climate, and I am unsure exactly how this will impact [Bridenstine’s] tenure.” Dreier said, however, that “there is an opportunity to move forward and work together on space science and exploration issues in a way that avoids partisanship and brings people together. Space exploration has a way of encouraging that.”

“NASA has an impressive legacy of exploration and discovery in both the human and scientific dimensions. My hope is that Congressman Bridenstine will be a champion for NASA’s amazing achievements on all of these fronts, including Earth Science, which has been a critical component of the NASA portfolio, enabling us to understand how the Earth functions, how it is changing, and the implications for the way we live,” former NASA chief scientist Waleed Abdalati told Eos. Abdalati, who directs the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, cochaired a committee of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that in January issued a decadal report, Thriving on Our Changing Planet: A Decadal Strategy for Earth Observation from Space.

Abdalati said he hopes that Bridenstine follows the recommendations of that and other space-related decadal surveys and supports adequate funding of NASA science. “The NASA investment in Earth Science need not be focused on the political aspects of climate change, but for the good of society understanding what the future holds is critical to our success as a nation and as a civilization,” he added.

Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “Despite concerns around [his] previous statements and actions related to climate change and Earth science, we fully expect Rep. Bridenstine to uphold NASA’s scientific integrity aims and the ability of agency scientists to freely talk about their work, including as it relates to climate change, without any fear of repercussions.”

Hoping Bridenstine Rises to the Challenges

John Logsdon, professor emeritus and founder of the Space Policy Institute at the George Washington University in Washington, D. C., said he hopes that Bridenstine will be a good NASA administrator and will rise to the challenges of his new role. Logsdon noted that particular challenges Bridenstine will need to face involve implementing the exploration goals of the Trump administration’s December 2017 White House Space Policy Directive 1 with the amount of resources available and demonstrating that he better understands climate change.

“It’s been a partisan vote all the way along and to the very end, but hopefully, a year from now nobody will remember,” Logsdon told Eos. “I hope that Jim Bridenstine comes in and demonstrates that the criticisms of his being too partisan are wrong and that he runs the organization as it has been in the past: as a national organization serving a national purpose.”

Bridenstine “is a smart guy. He’s heard all this criticism for how many months it’s been,” Logsdon added. “He recognizes that if he’s going to be successful, he can’t run the organization as an arm of the Republican Party. It is an arm of the Trump administration, but that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Will Bridenstine become a good NASA administrator? “I hope so,” Logsdon said. “Let’s find out.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2018), Senate OK’s new NASA head by razor-thin margin, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO097419. Published on 20 April 2018.
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