Trump pick could revive space agency
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.