This article has been updated.
President Trump recently announced his pick for NASA administrator: Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a former pilot whose goals for our solar system include installing humans on the moon and cleaning up space junk. He also has expressed skepticism about human-caused climate change.
NASA has lacked a permanent administrator since January. The previous one, former astronaut and retired Marine Corps aviator Charles Bolden, resigned the day that Trump took office. NASA's associate administrator, Robert Lightfoot Jr., stepped in as the temporary head of the agency. Lightfoot holds the record for longest tenure as an acting NASA administrator.
The announcement, on Friday evening before Labor Day weekend, came after months of speculation that the 42-year-old representative from Oklahoma would get the nod. Last year, Bridenstine — a strong supporter of Trump during the presidential race — informally told the Trump campaign he was interested in a leadership role at NASA or the Air Force, The Washington Post reported three days after the November election.
“I am pleased to have Rep. Bridenstine nominated to lead our team,” Lightfoot said in a statement on Sept. 1. “Of course, the nomination must go through the Senate confirmation process, but I look forward to ensuring a smooth transition and sharing the great work the NASA team is doing.”
Bridenstine has advocated strengthening ties between NASA and the commercial spaceflight industry. He unveiled the American Space Renaissance Act in April 2016 — a sweeping measure so broad that, The Post reported, even Bridenstine was doubtful it would pass, and it has stalled in Congress. The act would have, among other things, updated the Defense Department's satellite fleet and put a government agency in charge of space debris. It narrowed what Bridenstine called NASA's “jack-of-all-trades” approach, setting the agency on course for the moon, Mars and little else. He has also called for a “permanent presence” on the moon, including a refueling station where satellites would load up on lunar ice.
“Bridenstine has the potential to be a pretty good administrator,” said Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado's engineering school. That Bridenstine has publicly taken positions on space sets him apart from previous nominees, Larson said. “The space community kind of knows where he’s at on these issues.”
Perhaps a bigger question is his stance on earth and climate science. From the House floor in 2013, Bridenstine said that “global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” which is incorrect. In a 2016 interview with Aerospace America, he said that the climate “has always changed,” though remained open to “studying it.”
On Twitter, Columbia University environmental law professor Michael Gerrard called Bridenstine a “climate denier,” likening him to a fellow Oklahoman, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt. But in a recent editorial at Tulsa World, editor Wayne Green recounted that Bridenstine understands that humans contribute to climate change, and that the congressman wishes he phrased his 2013 House speech differently.
Researcher Kelvin Droegemeier of the University of Oklahoma at Norman, who worked with Bridenstine on a bill related to studying the weather, said that the congressman acknowledges that climate change is real. “He absolutely believes the planet is warming, that [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, and that it contributes to warming,” Droegemeier told Science magazine.
Before his election to the House of Representatives, Bridenstine served as a Navy pilot and directed the Tulsa Air and Space Museum. He has not worked as a scientist or engineer, though he was involved with a rocket-powered aircraft league. (The Rocket Racing League — think NASCAR, but with rocket planes — failed to hold any races. “It was before its time,” Bridenstine said to Space News in 2013.)
If confirmed, Bridenstine would be the first politician to serve as NASA administrator. He is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which has frequently come into conflict with Republican leaders. Those opposed to his nomination, particularly Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, have pointed to his political career as a critical flaw.
“It’s the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics and it’s at a critical juncture in its history,” Rubio said to Politico. “I would hate to see an administrator held up — on [grounds of] partisanship, political arguments, past votes, or statements made in the past — because the agency can’t afford it and it can’t afford the controversy.” Likewise, Nelson told Politico in a statement that, “the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.”
Larson, who spent five years in the Office of Science and Technology Policy and advised the Obama administration on issues of space exploration, pointed out that not all of the agency's past administrators have had technical expertise. “Sometimes the biggest challenges aren't the rocket science,” he said, “but the political side of getting pragmatic engineering approaches to space exploration.”
James Webb, for instance, was an attorney and business director before serving as NASA administrator between 1961 and 1968. Webb's managerial skills were lauded in his obituary in the New York Times. One aide recalled: “The reason we got to the moon before the Russians was they didn't have anybody to pull it together. The critical difference was we outmanaged them.”
"I’m bullish on this pick,” Larson said. “The top line flags — politician and climate — are not as serious 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 current environment, this is a win for the space community.”