If confirmed, Jim Bridenstine would be the first NASA administrator in the post-Apollo era who wasn’t yet born when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. He’s a politician and a Navy aviator, not a rocket scientist, whose credentials have already been criticized by Florida's two U.S. senators. And the congressman's comments expressing skepticism about the role humans have played in climate change have sparked controversy.
But in the days since President Trump announced that Bridenstine was his pick to lead the space agency, the 42-year-old conservative Republican House member from Oklahoma has lined up some key support from members of Congress and industry groups.
Bridenstine’s nomination comes as NASA is increasingly relying on the private sector to perform tasks that were once the exclusive domain of the government. Under President George W. Bush, NASA decided to hire commercial ventures to fly cargo to the International Space Station. Under President Barack Obama, the private sector was tasked with flying astronauts there, with the first flights with human passengers coming in a year or so.
Now, under Trump, the growing private sector is looking to capitalize on its momentum and partner with NASA to go even farther — to the moon and deep space. And it regards Bridenstine as someone who would be good for business.
“NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Representative Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said S. Alan Stern, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group representing many space companies and start-ups.
The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, representing many of the big legacy contractors, said it also welcomed the nomination, saying Bridenstine “has been an active and vocal advocate for space on Capitol Hill.”
But in a subsequent statement to The Washignton Post, the coalition's president, Mary Lynne Dittmar, backed away from a full endorsement, saying, “We look forward to learning more from Rep. Bridenstine during the Senate confirmation hearings.”
His nomination is moving forward at a pivotal time for NASA and the growing space industry. Under contracts with the agency, SpaceX and Boeing are set to fly astronauts to the space station, restoring human spaceflight from United States soil for the first time since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. NASA also is preparing to launch its massive Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule in the coming years.
NASA is poised to ask the private sector for proposals to develop a lunar lander that could take experiments and cargo to the surface of the moon, with flights starting as early as 2018. Bridenstine, who serves in the Navy Reserve, has advocated a return to the moon, writing in a blog post last year that “from the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance.”
At a recent congressional hearing, Jason Crusan, the director of NASA’s division of advanced exploration systems, said the solicitation for lunar landers shows the agency’s “growing confidence in the commercial industry.”
Many in Congress agree.
“Not only can space involve the private sector, it must involve the private sector,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.), the chairman of the House Science subcommittee on space.
In addition to backing work with younger, entrepreneurial firms, Bridenstine has also voiced his support for the traditional industrial base, made up of behemoths such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing. They want to ensure that programs such as the Space Launch System, the massive rocket being developed by NASA, and the Orion crew capsule continue, even though they’ve been criticized for being well over budget and behind schedule.
“It’s not 'or.' It’s 'and,' ” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “It’s the notion that you can have the traditional approach and you can have this newer commercial approach, and both could yield great benefits to the agency. Bridenstine understands as well as anyone the capabilities that are offered by both of these sectors.”
Mike Gold, the chairman of a commercial space advisory committee for the Federal Aviation Administration, said that Bridenstine would be able to unite the industry with “his support for a diverse array of activities such as deep-space exploration, private-sector partnerships, Earth science and technology development.”
But Bridenstine sparked controversy when he demanded during a House floor speech that Obama apologize for spending more on climate-change research than weather forecasting. He also said that global temperatures “stopped rising 10 years ago,” which isn’t true.
Those comments could haunt him in his Senate confirmation hearing and have already made him a target.
“Climate change due to global warming is one of the greatest threats facing us as a species,” science blogger Phil Plait wrote recently. “The leader of the world’s premier space agency should at the very bare minimum be willing to admit it exists.”
Supporters say that his views have evolved and that he is not a climate-change denier. As a representative from a state that is often battered by tornadoes, he is passionate about ensuring that Earth-science efforts are robust and well funded, they say.
He also has been criticized by Sens. Marco Rubio (R) and Bill Nelson (D) of Florida, who told Politico that NASA should not be run by a politician.
“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. “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.”
But Rep. Ed Perlmutter, a Colorado Democrat who serves with Bridenstine on the House Science Committee, called him a “a no-nonsense straight shooter when it comes to space exploration and weather issues.”
He said he planned “to speak up to my friends over in the Senate to let them know I think he’d be a good administrator. He’s someone who listens closely and has a strong mind, and I think will be good leader.”