The space agency has gone without a permanent leader for 15 months, since Charles Bolden resigned as Trump took office. During that time, Robert Lightfoot, a NASA veteran, has been running the agency. But he recently announced that he was retiring from the agency at the end of this month.
In an interview here, Lightfoot said that the “period of uncertainty is hard” and that “it’s always better when the president’s appointees are running the agencies.”
But he stressed that even though he was in the job on an acting basis, “I have had zero problems with getting access to the White House.” And he has been praised by members of the administration and the White House for leading the agency while Bridenstine’s nomination was on hold.
During a speech at the National Space Symposium here Monday, Vice President Pence thanked Lightfoot and said, “We’re hopeful very soon that those big shoes will be filled.” He praised Bridenstine as “a great champion of the men and women at NASA and a great champion of the president’s vision for NASA, and for American leadership in space.”
Bridenstine is a former naval aviator who ran the Tulsa Air and Space Museum before coming to Congress in 2013. An avid supporter of space exploration, he sponsored the American Space Renaissance Act, a wide-ranging bill that touched on national security, how best to deal with debris in space, and how to regulate the commercial space industry.
But his nomination ran immediately into resistance from Democrats, who said he was unfit for the post. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) led the effort, accusing him of being a climate change denier who lacked the necessary leadership experience.
“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional, who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive,” Nelson said during Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing last year. “More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration.”
He added: “Frankly, Congressman Bridenstine, I cannot see how you meet these criteria.”
Bridenstine, who was endorsed by Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, had said that his views had evolved and that he “absolutely” believed in climate change. If confirmed, Bridenstine said he would “look forward to promoting the scientific community’s priorities.”
His nomination comes at a critical time for the agency, which is preparing to return to the moon, and to restore human spaceflight from United States soil, a capability that was lost when the space shuttle program was retired in 2011.