Rep. Jim Bridenstine, the nominee for NASA administrator, responds to questions from senators at a confirmation hearing November 1. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)
On Monday afternoon, Vice President Mike Pence will formally swear in James Bridenstine as NASA’s thirteenth administrator at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. The two will likely make some remarks, and will also talk with astronauts Scott Tingle, Drew Feustel, and Ricky Arnold, currently on the International Space Station.
The event is a long time coming, and for many in the space community, it seemed like it might never come. The White House formally nominated Bridenstine in early September (it reissued the nomination in early January to comply with Senate rules about nominations not being held over from one session to the next.) The Senate Commerce Committee favorably reported the nomination, on a strict party-line vote, in November and again in January (see “A contentious confirmation”, The Space Review, November 6, 2017).
The nomination, though, languished in the full Senate. Bridenstine lacked support from the Democratic minority, who criticized his lack of experience and his views on climate change and social issues, which were thrashed out during his extended confirmation hearing. He also faced skepticism from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who said he was worried about the politicization of NASA. “NASA is at a critical juncture in history, and it is important that its mission remain free of politics and partisanship,” he said in a statement shortly after the White House nominated Bridenstine.
With Republicans holding a narrow 51–49 majority in the Senate, Rubio’s skepticism and the absence of Sen. John McCain (R-AZ)—himself not necessarily a fan of Bridenstine—for cancer treatment, Bridenstine’s nomination could not go forward. Some supporters of Bridenstine sought to convince Rubio to change his month, while others instead tried to flip the Senate’s newest Democrat, Doug Jones of Alabama, to back Bridenstine.
What finally precipitated the vote was the announcement in mid-March by Robert Lightfoot, the agency’s acting administrator since January 2017, that he would retire from the agency at the end of April. The prospect of having a second acting administrator, as well as a long wait for the administration to give up on Bridenstine and nominate an alternative, convinced Rubio.
That scenario, he said in a speech on the Senate floor April 19, “leaves us with the prospect of this incredibly important agency for Florida and the country with a vacancy in its top job and we’re on our second acting administrator.”
“There is no way NASA can go two years and X number of months without a permanent administrator,” he said, ultimately concluding that the president “should have significant discretion in picking the team” he wants running the government (an argument he then used to build support for Mike Pompeo, the president’s nominee to be the next secretary of state.)
He suggested, though, that he was still not a fan of Bridenstine running the agency. “I was not enthused about the nomination. Nothing personal against Mr. Bridenstine,” he said. “I felt NASA is an organization that needs to be led by a space professional.”
Even with Rubio’s change of heart, though, getting Bridenstine confirmed as NASA administrator wasn’t easy. On April 16, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell formally filed for cloture on the nomination, setting up a vote two days later that would set limits on debate about the nomination before that final vote.
Most expected that cloture vote would fall on party lines. However, Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) initially voted against cloture, creating a 49–49 tie. (Besides McCain, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, was absent, having given birth earlier in the month.) Pence, who could have cast a tiebreaking vote, was out of town, so the vote was left open for about an hour before Flake, having apparently extracted concessions from Senate leaders on unrelated issues, switched his vote to yes.
The final vote on the nomination the next day again fell on straight party lines: all 50 Republicans present voted for Bridenstine, while all the Democrats—including Duckworth, who made history by being the first senator to bring a baby onto the Senate floor, thanks to a rule change approved a day earlier—voted against him. That included Jones, apparently unswayed by efforts to get him to back Bridenstine. The final tally was 50–49.
The space industry, which had largely aligned itself behind Bridenstine, sighed with relief that the seven-and-a-half-month confirmation process had come to a successful conclusion. “The Senate vote today marks the beginning of Jim’s tenure at our nation’s space agency as America prepares to return to the Moon and push further into deep space,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and CEO of the Coalition of Deep Space Exploration, in a statement issued immediately after the Senate vote.
Other groups weighed in well. “Since he was elected to Congress, Rep. Bridenstine has been a constant champion and advocate for the space industry,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “His knowledge and passion for space, science and technology will serve him well in the position of administrator.”
Others offering congratulations ranged from The Planetary Society (“We look forward to working with him to explore space, advance space science and search for life on other worlds,” said society CEO Bill Nye) to The Mars Society (“The Mars Society offers you its full support in any effort you make to give the American people a purpose-driven space program that is really going somewhere,” said founder and president Robert Zubrin.)
Critics, though, are no less concerned about his ability to run the agency, as well as what he might do there now that he is in charge. Many pointed out his views on climate change, bringing up comments he made early in his tenure as a congressman where he claimed there was no evidence of warming global temperatures.
“Scientific integrity matters at NASA. I hope the new administrator begins to listen to career employees rather than engage in political grandstanding,” said RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote, a climate change advocacy group, after thanking the group’s members who “spoke out against this unqualified climate denier.”
That criticism was a common theme, although at his confirmation hearing Bridenstine offered a somewhat different opinion. Asked by Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) if he agreed with the statement, “Climate warming trends over the past century are extremely likely due to human activity,” Bridenstine said yes. He also said, “Human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing,” but wouldn’t go so far as to say that human activity is the primary contributor.
Schatz and others made their case in the final Senate debate on the nomination that Bridenstine was unqualified. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) said that Bridenstine’s nomination was part of a trend of not nominating qualified people to run science-related agencies, when the administration nominated anyone at all.
“While this nomination is problematic due to Congressman Bridenstine’s lack of relevant qualifications and the importance of this position to our nation, I am deeply concerned that his nomination is further evidence of a deeper problem,” Peters said. “I am concerned that this administration does not respect science, especially science in government institutions.”
“There is simply no excuse for voting for someone so unqualified to run NASA,” tweeted Schatz as the Senate voted to confirm Bridenstine. “They aren’t even bothering to make the argument that he will be a good administrator. They are just voting yes and getting out of town.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who was the biggest critic of Bridenstine’s nomination, made his closing argument against the nomination on the Senate floor April 18. He again argued that the head of NASA should be a “consummate space professional” and not a politician in order to make the tough decisions on launching missions that put lives at risk.
“The success or failure of leadership at NASA is, quite literally, a matter of life or death,” he said. “I think that what’s not right for NASA is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in line to make that fateful decision on go or no-go for launch.”
However, Nelson struck something of a conciliatory tone in his remarks, saying he was willing to work with Bridenstine if confirmed. “I hold nothing against him personally. He’s a very likable fellow,” he said. “If Congressman Bridenstine is, in fact, confirmed, I will work with him for the good of our nation’s space program.”
With today’s swearing-in ceremony, the Bridenstine era at NASA begins—for better or for worse, depending on your point of view. He will, though, arrive at an agency where many of the decisions about the agency’s future, at least for this administration, have already been made.
A lot has changed since Bridenstine was nominated last September. A new space policy directive has directed NASA to return humans to the Moon, and the agency has already crafted a high-level approach to doing so through the “Exploration Campaign” concept included in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.
Bridenstine has, formally at least, been on the sidelines while all that was developed. (At last week’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, some privately quipped that NASA’s real administrator during this time was Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council.) But, after all, an administrator is supposed to do just that: administer an organization whose strategic direction has been set by the White House and Congress. That will be a big shift for someone who previously had been working to help shape that strategic direction, for NASA and other government space efforts, in Congress.
Bridenstine will have some help, including from Lightfoot. On April 11, the Space Transportation Association held an event on Capitol Hill to honor Lightfoot for his interim leadership of NASA and for his three-decade career at the space agency. Among those speaking at the event was Bridenstine, who thanked Lightfoot for helping him prepare for becoming administrator.
“I want everybody here to know how much he has helped me going through this confirmation process, preparing me in many ways for what’s to come,” Bridenstine said of Lightfoot, adding that he would continue to solicit Lightfoot’s advice in the future. “I am confident there will come a day where everybody is trying to convince me of one thing or another, and I’ll be able to get the straight truth from you.”
In a job as complex as running NASA, it helps to have a lifeline to call.