Trump’s pick for NASA lays out agenda and answers critics
Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who was nominated to become NASA's next administrator by the Trump administration on September 1, may get a Senate confirmation hearing as early as next week. The choice of the 42-year-old Republican pilot has raised objections among some of his fellow members of Congress because of his lack of a technical background. Environmentalists have also objected to Bridenstine due to his views on climate change.
However, a pre-hearing questionnaire submitted by Bridenstine addresses some of these criticisms and also offers some important clues about where he would like to see the space agency go. "With NASA's global leadership, we will pioneer the Solar System, send humans back to the Moon, to Mars, and beyond. This requires a consistent, sustainable strategy for deep space exploration." Bridenstine supports human missions to the Moon before going to Mars.
Among the first critics of Bridenstine's nomination on September 1 were Florida's two senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio. Nelson told Politico that the head of NASA should have a professional background, rather than a political one. Rubio echoed Nelson's sentiments, saying, “I just think it could be devastating for the space program. Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission." He added that NASA's administrator should have a scientific perspective.
However, as Space Policy Online subsequently noted, two of NASA's previous 11 administrators have had no technical experience. And arguably the agency's most effective administrator, James Webb, who led NASA during the Mercury, Gemini, and initial Apollo missions, was a lawyer.
Although Bridenstine is a politician, there are likely few people in Congress more qualified to lead the space agency. As a Naval aviator, he flew missions off of aircraft carriers and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of Congress, Bridenstine immersed himself in space-related committees and policy decisions, seeking to reform US aerospace efforts in both civil and military space. The conservative has previously outlined broad goals to modernize the US spaceflight enterprise with his American Space Enterprise Act.
Perhaps the most vocal criticism of Bridenstine has come from environmental groups, which oppose Bridenstine's views on climate change (because of statements like these). One group, Climate Hawks Vote, urged people to call their representatives to oppose Trump's nominee, saying, "NASA needs to be run by someone who respects science. Not climate denier Jim Bridenstine."
However, as NASA Watch has reported, Bridenstine's record on climate change is not entirely clear-cut, as some of his votes have indicated concern about the future effects of climate change and the need for further study. For example, earlier this year he said, "There are real changes in the Arctic that do affect the Navy. The Arctic ice is disappearing. There are strategic changes that are being implicated here. And it's important for the Department of Defense to report to Congress on this."
As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine wrote that NASA should continue studying humanity's home planet along with its mission of planetary science to study Mars and the rest of the Solar System. "NASA must continue to advance both Earth science and planetary science for the benefit of mankind."
One of Bridenstine's consistent themes as a US representative was to push NOAA to rely more on the private sector for data collection about Earth's atmosphere. It seems possible that, along these lines, he will push NASA to do less "operational" work to enable NOAA's data collection and do more actual research.
It is certainly true that Bridenstine is not an advocate for immediate, consequential action on climate change. But amid the potential choices of the Trump administration to lead NASA, he does not appear to be dogmatic about ending funding for science—including Earth science—from the agency's budget or mandate.
Some of the opposition to Bridenstine during the last six months has come, quietly, from the legacy aerospace industry. (Likely, this was the driver of Rubio's initial criticism of Bridenstine.) The large aerospace firms who have traditionally fulfilled civil and military aerospace contracts, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, and other companies are skeptical of Bridenstine's chumminess with the commercial space industry.
After his nomination, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents "new space" firms such as SpaceX, immediately praised the choice. "NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said Alan Stern, board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, which represents more traditional aerospace companies and those firms working on NASA's Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, offered a more muted comment four days after the nomination, saying, "We look forward to working with NASA’s new leadership team." In a subsequent statement to The Washington Post, the organization's executive director, Mary Lynne Dittmar, backed away from a full endorsement.
As part of his questionnaire, Bridenstine sought to allay some of those concerns by listing reconciling these differences as one of NASA's top three challenges: "Bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs into a comprehensive NASA vision to maximize resources and create efficiencies."
This approach appears to be working. The leading congressional champion of NASA's Space Launch System rocket, Alabama Republican Senator Richard Shelby, tweeted Tuesday that he had met with Bridenstine. "I look forward to supporting him throughout this process," Shelby added. This suggests that Bridenstine will win his nomination fairly easily.