After months of uncertainty, NASA is getting a new administrator. The US Senate has confirmed Jim Bridenstine to head up the space agency. President Trump’s appointments have often been contentious, but this one has given even Republicans pause. Bridenstine currently serves as a Republican US Representative from Oklahoma, making him the first politician to take the reins at NASA. He also lacks the scientific and aerospace credentials of past administrators.
NASA has been without a permanent administrator since shortly after Donald Trump took office in early 2017. Obama appointee Charles Bolden stepped down from leading NASA at that time, leaving deputy administrator Robert Lightfoot as acting director. Lightfoot is already the longest-serving interim director in the agency’s history, and he previously announced plans to retire at the end of this month. That kicked the confirmation process into high gear and pushed a few Republican holdouts to vote for Bridenstine, moving the confirmation from committee to the Senate floor.
Many on both sides of the aisle have expressed concern over Bridenstine’s lack of experience compared with past NASA administrators. He holds an MBA and previously ran the Tulsa Air and Space Museum before being elected to Congress. As a US Representative, Bridenstine has worked on various space policy initiatives. Traditionally, NASA is led by someone who has extensive experience in aerospace, the military, or science. Robert Lightfoot has a background in mechanical engineering, and his predecessor Charles Bolden was an electrical engineer and former Marine Major General. Michael Griffin, who led NASA from 2005 to 2009, has a PhD in aerospace engineering.
A more troubling aspect of Jim Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator is his apparent denial of global climate change. In a 2013 speech on the House floor, Bridenstine made the claim that global temperatures had stopped rising a decade before. To be clear, that’s demonstrably false. He has also objected to increased spending on climate research, which is a problem if he’s going to be in charge of NASA. The agency produces some of the finest atmospheric and climate research in the world, and there’s some fear that having a Republican politician in charge could endanger that work. To Bridenstine’s credit, he said in confirmation hearings that he now believes humans affect the climate, but stopped short of acknowledging it as a driving force behind global warming.
We don’t yet know when Bridenstine will take over at NASA, but it will have to be before acting administrator Lightfoot retires at the end of the month. We’ll we watching with interest to see how Bridenstine chooses to manage NASA.