In recent weeks, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine had come out publicly saying what he wanted in a deputy — someone with a technical background who understood space and the agency charged with exploring it. He even had a person in mind, Janet Kavandi, a former NASA astronaut who flew to space three times and now is the director of NASA’s Glenn Research Center.
But on Thursday, the White House went in a completely different direction, nominating James Morhard, a longtime senior staffer on Capitol Hill with little to no technical experience who critics said is getting the nod because of close ties in Washington. Morhard serves as the U.S. Senate deputy sergeant at arms and over a long government career was a staff director on the Senate Appropriations Committee and worked in the secretary of the Navy’s office.
In public remarks, Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman who was also criticized as being a partisan pick, said according to SpaceNews that he wanted “somebody who has a lot of space experience, a space professional. It needs to be somebody who has run large organizations, who understands the technology.”
Morhard’s critics said he meets none of those qualifications, and some industry officials have said privately that Bridentsine’s public endorsement of Kavandi was an attempt to fend off a political nominee.
“It’s telling that Bridenstine was openly campaigning for someone with research and operational experience, but unfortunately, like many things this administration does, they appointed a friend of those in power who has no relevant experience or expertise,” said Phil Larson, a space adviser in the Obama White House.
Morhard’s backers, however, said he is just the sort of person who can get NASA moving on the right track. For years, the agency has been criticized of being adrift and overly bureaucratic with plans to go to the moon, then to Mars and an asteroid.
The Trump administration has made space a priority and reconstituted the National Space Council, which is headed by Vice President Pence. It soon hopes to restore human spaceflight from United States soil — a capability that was lost when the space shuttle retired in 2011. And it now has plans to return to the moon.
To reach those goals, the agency needs a leader like Morhard, said Bob Walker, a former Republican congressman who helped draft President Trump’s space policy goals.
“The administration has decided they want somebody who is clearly in tune with what the president wants to get done in the space program,” he said. Bridenstine “is going to have a great partner in implementing the very visionary space goals the president has set forward.”
Morhard’s experience in Washington, particularly on the Appropriations Committee, will be helpful, not a hindrance, he said, adding that Morhard “has bipartisan support on the Hill.”
Mark Albrecht, the executive secretary of the National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush, also said Morhard was a good pick: “He brings years of experience from the Senate Appropriations Committee reviewing programs, looking at budgets and making programs achieve their intended purposes.”
In a statement, Bridenstine said that the “administration is committed to American leadership in space, and I look forward to working with Mr. Morhard upon his confirmation.”