Science Policy & Funding News

White House Announces Picks for NASA Chief and NOAA Deputy Head

If the administration’s selection of Rep. Jim Bridenstine to lead NASA is confirmed, the congressman would be the first politician to head the agency.

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The Trump administration has chosen an Oklahoma lawmaker who is a former fighter pilot and air and space museum executive to direct the nation’s space agency. In an announcement this past Friday evening that included dozens of intended nominations, the White House also revealed its choice for the number two position at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The administration’s intention to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) as the next NASA administrator is drawing praise from space industry groups but is also sparking concerns among some senators who worry that a politician in the post could embroil the agency in partisan battles. In addition, some climate experts are vexed by the White House’s 1 September pick because of Bridenstine’s past statements expressing skepticism about human-induced climate change.

An Interest and Background in Space Issues

Bridenstine, who serves on the House’s Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Committee on Armed Services, has shown strong interest in space. Last April, he sponsored the American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945). Signaling some of the congressman’s interests, that legislation aims “to permanently secure the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation.” The bill focuses on the need to project military strength, encourage commercial space innovation, and promote stability and mission clarity at NASA.

Bridenstine’s background includes flying combat missions as a Navy fighter pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan and serving as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. His potential move from his current position to lead NASA disturbs Florida’s senators. “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, told Politico. Bridenstine would be the first politician to lead the agency. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) added that he worries that Bridenstine’s “political baggage” could cause problems at his confirmation hearing.

Climate Views Draw Criticism

Some climate experts have taken issue with past statements by Bridenstine downplaying human causes of climate change. In a June 2016 interview with Aerospace America, for instance, Bridenstine said that “the climate is changing. It has always changed. There were periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today.” In that same interview, however, Bridenstine said he is “not opposed” to studying climate change.

Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law in New York, tweeted last week that Bridenstine is “a climate denier” and hyperlinked to information on a website of Organizing for Action, a Chicago-based advocacy group.

Support for Bridenstine

Phil Larson, who was an Obama administration senior adviser for space and innovation from 2009 to 2014, told Eos that he is “bullish” on Bridenstine’s selection. “The top line flags—him being a politician and comments on climate science—are not as bad when you look under the hood. He wants NASA to have a strong Earth science mission. And he wants to push the agency forward, including commercial. In the current environment, this is a win for the space community,” said Larson, assistant dean for strategy, planning, and communications at the College of Engineering and Applied Science of the University of Colorado Boulder.

Larson said some important questions are what policies Bridenstine will prioritize to further NASA’s mission and promote a space portfolio and whether the agency will continue to expand commercial partnerships.

“I know he made some comments a while ago that he walked back about climate change,” Larson said, pointing to an 18 August editorial in the Tulsa World. “There’s big questions and concerns when it comes to this administration’s stance on climate change, but I don’t know if that starts with Jim Bridenstine. I think he understands how incredibly important NASA’s Earth science portfolio is to the nation and world.”

Bill Nye, chief executive officer of the Planetary Society, told Eos, “The Planetary Society has enjoyed productive discussions with Congressman Bridenstine. He understands the importance of space for our economy, for our future, and for future generations.”

Also voicing support for Bridenstine is the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said board chair Alan Stern, associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute’s Space Science and Engineering Division in Boulder, Colo. Stern has served as principal investigator on a number of planetary and lunar missions, including the New Horizons Pluto–Kuiper Belt mission.

Gallaudet Picked as NOAA Deputy Administrator

The White House also announced on Friday its intention to nominate Navy Rear Admiral Timothy Gallaudet as assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere. The person in that post serves also as deputy administrator of NOAA, which is part of the Department of Commerce.

Gallaudet, who has served as oceanographer and navigator of the Navy and as commander of the Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command, has master’s and doctoral degrees from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and a bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Naval Academy, all in oceanography.

Members of the scientific community praised Gallaudet’s selection. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program and former president of the American Meteorological Society, tweeted last week, “For those of us concerned abt climate, seeing Adm Tim Gallaudet nomination as Deputy @NOAA is good news. He gets it”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), White House announces picks for NASA chief and NOAA deputy head, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO081345. Published on 05 September 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0