Trump pick could re­vive space agency

Orlando Sentinel - - OPINION -

On Sept. 1, the Fri­day be­fore La­bor Day — while much of the na­tion was look­ing for­ward to a long week­end, and the news was dom­i­nated by the un­fold­ing nat­u­ral disas­ter of Hur­ri­cane Har­vey — the White House fi­nally re­vealed Pres­i­dent Trump’s long-awaited nom­i­na­tion to head NASA: U.S. Rep. Jim Bri­den­s­tine, an Ok­la­homa Repub­li­can.

Both of Florida’s U.S. sen­a­tors turned thumbs down on the pick. Said Demo­crat Bill Nel­son, a long­time champion for the space pro­gram in Congress, “The head of NASA ought to be a space pro­fes­sional, not a politi­cian.” Repub­li­can Marco Ru­bio con­curred, telling SpaceNews that Bri­den­s­tine’s “po­lit­i­cal bag­gage” could hin­der the space agency “at a crit­i­cal junc­ture in his­tory.”

Nel­son and Ru­bio of­ten take op­pos­ing sides on is­sues, so it can be strik­ing when they agree. That doesn’t mean they’re al­ways right when they unite.

‘The pre-em­i­nent space-far­ing na­tion’

NASA has been with­out a per­ma­nent ad­min­is­tra­tor since Pres­i­dent Obama’s pick, Charles Bolden, re­signed as Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary. The na­tion’s space pro­gram would be ill-served by ex­tend­ing that va­cancy even longer with a cam­paign in the U.S. Senate to block Trump’s choice. And even if that ef­fort were ul­ti­mately to suc­ceed, there’s no guar­an­tee the pres­i­dent would fol­low up with a bet­ter choice.

Bri­den­s­tine was a Navy pi­lot and di­rected the Tulsa Air and Space Mu­seum be­fore he was elected to Congress. Al­though he has mul­ti­ple aca­demic de­grees, he’s not a sci­en­tist or an en­gi­neer. He wouldn’t be the first NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor to lack those cre­den­tials; James Webb, who ably led the agency through most of the Apollo era, was a lawyer and oil com­pany ex­ec­u­tive.

And Bri­den­s­tine’s po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, con­sid­ered a neg­a­tive by Nel­son and Ru­bio, could be his most pos­i­tive as­set. As a mem­ber of the House Com­mit­tee on Space, Science and Technology, he has been one of the cham­ber’s strong­est ad­vo­cates for the space pro­gram. “Amer­ica must for­ever be the pre-em­i­nent space-far­ing na­tion,” he de­clared last year in a speech to a NASA group.

Elected to three terms, he’s a mem­ber of the House Free­dom Cau­cus, the cham­ber’s tea party del­e­ga­tion. Yet Phil Lar­son, a for­mer se­nior ad­viser on space to Pres­i­dent Obama, told the Washington Post, “Bri­den­s­tine has the po­ten­tial to be a pretty good ad­min­is­tra­tor.”

Re­turn­ing to the moon

Over the past decade, abrupt shifts in pri­or­i­ties for manned space­flight at NASA — from the moon to Mars to as­ter­oids — have wasted lim­ited re­sources at the agency. Bri­den­s­tine is a staunch be­liever in re­turn­ing to the moon, ar­gu­ing it could serve as a cheaper base for deeper space ex­plo­ration. If he can fix NASA on that course, and get Congress to come along, there’s hope for the space pro­gram to start mak­ing up for lost time.

Bri­den­s­tine’s con­fir­ma­tion could ben­e­fit Florida. As a House mem­ber, he has been a big booster of the com­mer­cial space in­dus­try, the en­gine of an eco­nomic re­vival on Florida’s Space Coast. It’s no­table that Space Florida, the agency nur­tur­ing the growth of the in­dus­try in the state, has taken an op­ti­mistic view of the pres­i­dent’s pick.

The Com­mer­cial Space Fed­er­a­tion also hailed Trump’s pick. SpaceX and Blue Ori­gin, two of the pri­vate rock­e­teers now op­er­at­ing on the Space Coast, are among the fed­er­a­tion’s mem­bers.

Bri­den­s­tine’s past re­marks ques­tion­ing hu­man-caused cli­mate change are dis­turb­ing and dis­ap­point­ing, but not dis­qual­i­fy­ing. He has also said he doesn’t op­pose con­tin­ued cli­mate re­search at NASA. And the sad fact is that the pres­i­dent him­self has called global warm­ing a hoax, so even a NASA ad­min­is­tra­tor who fully ac­cepts the over­whelm­ing sci­en­tific ev­i­dence for cli­mate change would likely face con­straints from the White House.

NASA — and Florida — might not do bet­ter than Bri­den­s­tine.

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