Rep. Jim Bridenstine, the nominee for NASA administrator, responds to questions from senators at a confirmation hearing November 1. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
What should people be looking for in a NASA administrator? Spaceflight experience? A technical background? Leadership capabilities? A demonstrated record of ethics? An ability to unite an agency and its diverse workforce? Some—or all—of the above?
Those questions have been batted around since the Trump Administration announced at the beginning of September the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) for the post. Some praised his space policy expertise, while others noted a lack of technical expertise or other experience at NASA, not to mention his positions on other issues he had taken in his four-plus years as a member of the House of Representatives.
Which of those areas would get the most scrutiny when he appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee November 1 for a confirmation hearing? In perhaps the most contentious such hearing for a NASA administrator in the agency’s history, Bridenstine faced tough questions from Democratic senators on topics that often had little to do with space policy, while Republican senators came to his defense.
A sign of how the hearing—which featured three other nominees for non-NASA positions, but who faced very few questions—would unfold over the course of more than two and a half hours came early on. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) offered sharp criticism of Bridenstine in his opening statement.
His statement focused on both Bridenstine’s lack of credentials, in Nelson’s opinion, as well as Bridenstine’s views and statements on other issues. “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and is a skilled executive,” Nelson said. “More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers, the Congress, and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration.”
Bridenstine, Nelson concluded, didn’t meet those criteria. “NASA is not political. The leader should not be political,” he said. “When that has occurred—that it has been partisan in the past—we had a disaster.”
“While your time as a pilot, and your service to our country in the military is certainly commendable,” Nelson told Bridenstine, “it doesn’t make you qualified to make complex and nuanced engineering, safety, and budgetary decisions for which the head of NASA must be accountable.”
Nelson singled out political statements Bridenstine had made while a House member in the past against other Republicans. This put Nelson, a Democrat up for reelection next year, in the odd position of defending the honor of Republican colleagues like Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and John McCain of Arizona. Bridenstine had criticized Rubio when the latter ran for president in 2016 (Bridenstine had backed Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the Republican primary) and also supported a challenger to McCain in the Republican primary for reelection to the Senate in 2016.
“These are some of the most divisive tactics that this senator has ever seen in either party,” Nelson told Bridenstine. “And this is just you attacking people in your own party. So how do you move past all of that and keep NASA from being dragged down into a divisive political background?”
Bridenstine argued that he would advocate for NASA just as strongly as he has those living in his Oklahoma congressional district. He cited as examples working with Democrats for the passage of legislation, ranging from a weather forecasting act to a NASA authorization bill.
“When it comes to space issues, and when it comes to issues that are important for the national security of this country, I have worked across the aisle with great Americans to bring about, I think, legislation that will ultimately serve every American,” he told Nelson.
“I do believe the NASA administrator, should I be confirmed, will need to work with Congress daily. And it is my highest ambition, sir, and I mean this sincerely, to work directly with you to make sure we are building that consensus agenda,” he added.
Other Democrats on the committee also quizzed Bridenstine on his past statements, in particular his views on climate change. Many have opposed his nomination based in large part on a one-minute speech on the House floor in 2013 where Bridenstine criticized the Obama Administrator for spending on climate change when, he believed, there was no evidence of warming global temperatures.
Bridenstine offered a different view on climate change when asked by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI). “I want to read to you a short statement, and you can let me know if you agree or disagree,” Schatz said. “Climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activity.”
“Yes,” Bridenstine immediately responded.
However, when Schatz asked later if Bridenstine believed that human activity was the primary cause of climate change, Bridenstine hedged. “Human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing,” he said. “It’s going to depend on a whole lot of factors. We’re still learning more about that every day. In some years you could say absolutely, and other years, during sun cycles and other things, there are other contributing factors which would maybe have more of an impact.”
Later in the hearing, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), who serves as the ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee, asked if Bridenstine would protect Earth scientists at NASA from potential retaliation if they discussed research about the human role in climate change. “I know, because I’ve been told by scientists, that fear is rampant amongst our government scientists that they are going to be punished if they speak publicly about their work on climate change science,” he said.
Bridenstine said he would not punish scientists on those issues, or reassign them to other positions. “If that is deemed as punishment for what they might have said about climate change, I can convince you that I’m not going to reassign anybody based on that,” he said.
Markey and other Democratic senators also brought up many other statements Bridenstine has made over the years on social issues, such as opposition to same-sex marriage and voting against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, as well as defending then-candidate Donald Trump last year when the “Access Hollywood” videotape surfaced.
“There have been troubling reports and allegations about widespread sexual assault and sexual harassment. This issue particularly plagues the scientific community as well,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH). “Do you stand by your assessment, and I’m quoting from the ‘Access Hollywood’ tape here, that grabbing women, or talking about doing so, is defensible?”
“I don’t think that’s defensible,” Bridenstine responded. He added he would ensure that everyone at NASA was “educated and aware” of sexual harassment, “and let everybody know that there will be zero tolerance for that.”
Asked about his opposition to same-sex marriage, and associations with individuals and groups opposed to LGBTQ rights, Bridenstine said, “I absolutely believe that every human being has value, and every person has worth. And it is my commitment to you and to the Senate and those employees that they will be treated fairly and equally.”
Bridenstine speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing. Looking on at right is Dana Baiocco, nominated to be a commissioner on the Consumer Product Safety Commission; she, and other nominees at the hearing, faced few questions from senators who instead devoted their attention on Bridenstine. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
“A little bit disgusting”
Republicans on the committee offered their support to Bridenstine, although at times that support came more in the form of criticism of their Democratic colleagues.
“You can’t have a hearing any more without anyone bringing up global warming,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), a noted skeptic of climate change. He reiterated his support for Bridenstine, in part because of his background of service in Congress. “It’s an asset, I think, to have someone who’s been a member of Congress. You have to keep in mind that NASA has to come to Congress to get their funding.”
“The ranking Democrat on the committee has suggested that you are somehow unqualified to serve as the administrator of NASA because you have taken a number of positions that he deems controversial,” said Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), referring to Nelson’s comments earlier in the hearing. “I consider wildly inappropriate this suggestion that this somehow disqualifies you and, with all due respect to my colleagues, I cannot for the life of me why that would be something that would disqualify you.”
Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) went even further. “Look, I think this hearing has at times gone into places where—a little bit disgusting throughout this nomination hearing this morning,” he said.
However, even the Republicans on the committee asked few questions of Bridenstine specific to space and what he might do as administrator. Gardner did briefly ask if Bridenstine supported the Orion program, which Bridenstine confirmed he did.
“I was going ask Mr. Bridenstine about issues such as the Stennis Space Center, but I guess I’ll ask you do to that for the record,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), whose state is home to that NASA center. Instead, Wicker talked about climate change during his time and his belief that there was no scientific consensus on the issue.
Perhaps the most detailed question about space policy came early in the hearing, as committee chairman Sen. John Thune (R-SD) asked Bridenstine how he would continue US leadership in space with international and commercial partners.
“The way I see it, sir, is that we need to create architectures that are in the interest of the United States of America, and then ultimately figure out, within those architectures, what piece can be done with traditional contracts, where the United States government purchases, owns, and operates capability; and other kinds of contracts where we can just buy a service,” he responded. “If we are to attain our highest ideals and achieve our most ambitious objectives, we absolutely need to continue our international partnerships.”
Confirmation and consequences
There was little sign at the end of the hearing that any minds had been changed, particularly among those critical of Bridenstine. “Thank you for your service to this nation, both in uniform and in Congress,” said Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) to Bridenstine near the end of the hearing, “but I truly do not think you are ready to be administrator for NASA.”
The next step will be for the Commerce Committee to vote on advancing the nomination to the full Senate. Bridenstine’s nomination is one of several that the committee is scheduled to take up in an executive session November 8.
Thune, talking to reporters after the hearing, was confident that Bridenstine would be approved. “Obviously, the Dems were trying to rough up the NASA nominee,” he said. “I’m not sure any of the attacks they launched are particularly relevant to the job he’s going to do over there. I wanted to hear a little bit more about his views on the space program, his vision for the agency.”
Assuming the nomination advances to the full Senate, its consideration there will depend on several factors, including time available to consider the nominations given the many other issues it has to deal with, as well as the potential for Democrats to slow down the nomination.
Thune said he had not checked for support of Bridenstine’s nomination among members outside of the committee, but expected that Bridenstine would eventually be confirmed. “I think in the end the votes will be there, so it’s just a question of how long they want to drag it out,” he said of Democratic opposition to the nomination.
The hearing was markedly different from other NASA administrator confirmation hearings in the past in the degree of partisan rancor on display, and the little attention given to issues specific to NASA beyond Earth sciences research. One person who has followed space policy for decades said privately he was “disheartened” by the hearing.
However, given how sharply partisan politics in Washington have become, particularly during the Trump Administration but even in the years leading up to it, it should hardly be surprising that even NASA is not immune to partisan debates, particularly when the administration nominates a politician—one with space policy experience, but also a political track record—to the position.
Cruz, who like his fellow Republicans supports the nomination, warned that this partisan debate could have long-term consequences, particularly for an issue like space that has benefitted from bipartisan cooperation even in the recent past, like the passage earlier this year of a NASA authorization bill.
“I believe that you’re going to get confirmed,” Cruz told Bridenstine at the hearing. “But if the confirmation ends up going down as a party-line vote, I think that would be deeply unfortunate for NASA and for the space community.”