In possible dig at Russia, Bridenstine says NASA should end 'dependency on unfriendly nations'
Bridenstine's first public comments since being nominated as NASA administrator Sept. 2 came in written responses to questions from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. The committee will consider Bridenstine's nomination during a hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
When asked to list three top challenges facing NASA, Bridenstine wrote, “Maintaining and building international partnerships while ending dependency on unfriendly nations to avoid exploitable vulnerabilities.”
“NASA is an incredible leadership and soft power tool for the United States of America,” he added. “With NASA's global leadership, we will pioneer the solar system, sending humans back to the Moon, to Mars and beyond."
The congressman did not elaborate on which countries he was referring to as unfriendly, though Russia is a strong possibility. The U.S. relies on Russia to get astronauts to the International Space Station. The U.S. also purchases Russian rocket engines.
On July 28, a Russian Soyuz rocket lifted off from Kazakhstan carrying American astronaut Randy Bresnik, along with Russian and Italian astronauts. There are currently three Americans, two Russians and an Italian man at the ISS.
When Congress voted in July to implement further sanctions on Russia as a result of its perceived meddling in America's presidential election, it carved out exceptions for aerospace. Still, the sanctions angered Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who overseas his nation's space industry.
"They say that 'space is outside politics.' We take the 'space is outside politics' slogan into account, but nothing lasts forever,” Rogozin told a Russian television station, referring to the United States.
After the U.S. implemented sanctions against Russia in 2014, Rogozin mocked NASA, suggesting on Twitter that “the U.S. deliver its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline.”
Bridenstine, if he was referring to Russia, wouldn't be the first member of Congress to grow concerned the longtime foe could use its aerospace leverage. U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said last November the U.S. should stop buying engines from Russia.
“Purchasing these engines provides financial benefit to Vladimir Putin's cronies, including individuals sanctioned by the United States, and subsidizes the Russian military-industrial base,” he said on the Senate floor.
Contrarily, retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the Moon, has said the U.S. should partner with another longtime foe, China, on space missions, including efforts to reach Mars.
Bridenstine mentioned two other challenges facing NASA in his written responses to the Senate Commerce Committee: "Maintaining consistency and constancy of purpose" and "bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs." The responses were submitted Sept. 11 and released online this week.
One response may have been an attempt to tamp down concerns about his commitment to science. Bridenstine has been skeptical of claims that humans are causing the planet to warm and his fellow conservatives have opposed some Earth science funding within NASA's budget. But in his written responses, Bridenstine said he has "come to appreciate how complex Earth is as a system."
"NASA must continue studying our home planet," he wrote. "Unfortunately, Earth science sometimes gets pitted against planetary science for resources. This is not in the best interest of NASA, the United States or the world."
"NASA must continue to advance both Earth science and planetary science for the benefit of mankind," he added.
Still, Bridenstine is likely to face criticism for his past comments on climate change, as well as his lack of scientific credentials, during his nomination hearing. The Commerce Committee's leading Democrat is U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., the only astronaut currently in Congress.
Nelson has said he will oppose Bridenstine because "the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician." U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., opposes Bridenstine for the same reason. If approved by the committee and full Senate, Bridenstine would be the first member of Congress to become NASA administrator.
Bridenstine, in his written remarks, heaped praise on NASA and its astronauts. He called his nomination "humbling and energizing."
"I can think of no higher honor in the service of my country than to lead NASA," he wrote.