After a record-long vacancy, NASA likely to finally get a formal leader

On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a space policy speech at a conference in Colorado. At the beginning of his talk, Pence singled out NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot for a 30-year career at the space agency, and applauded his service.

Left unstated was the fact that, at 15 months, Lightfoot has had by far the longest tenure of any acting administrator at NASA.

This is because the nomination of Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine has languished for months before the US Senate—NASA has not had a formal administrator since Charles Bolden left the agency on the day President Barack Obama left office.

The better part of a year has passed since the Trump administration nominated Bridenstine to fill the vacancy. In reality, with all Democrats likely to vote against him, the White House has not had enough votes in the narrowly divided Senate to confirm Bridenstine because Florida Republican Marco Rubio has opposed him, and Arizona Republican John McCain has been absent. But now, it appears that the White House has the votes, as multiple sources have told Ars that Rubio now supports Bridenstine’s nomination. Reflective of this, on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell filed cloture on the nomination, which could set up a vote on Thursday or Friday to confirm NASA’s next administrator.

In the Senate, Florida Democrat Bill Nelson had successfully spearheaded the opposition to Bridenstine, saying a starkly conservative politician should not lead an agency known for its lack of partisanship. A technical agency like NASA would be better led by a scientist, engineer, or astronaut, Nelson argued. For months, Nelson helped sway Rubio’s opposition to Bridenstine, noting that the Oklahoman had criticized Rubio during the 2016 presidential election.

Although Bridenstine is indeed a politician, who is serving his third and final term due to self-imposed term limits, there are likely few people in Congress more qualified to lead the space agency. As a Naval aviator, he flew missions off of aircraft carriers and combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a member of Congress, Bridenstine immersed himself in space-related committees and policy decisions, seeking to reform US aerospace efforts in both civil and military space. The conservative has previously outlined broad goals to modernize the US spaceflight enterprise with his American Space Enterprise Act.

Earth science concerns

Other criticism of Bridenstine has come from environmental groups, which oppose Bridenstine’s views on climate change (because of statements like these). One group, Climate Hawks Vote, urged people to call their representatives to oppose Trump’s nominee, saying, “NASA needs to be run by someone who respects science. Not climate denier Jim Bridenstine.”

However, Bridenstine’s record on climate change is not entirely clear-cut, as some of his votes have indicated concern about the future effects of climate change and the need for further study. For example, last year he said, “There are real changes in the Arctic that do affect the Navy. The Arctic ice is disappearing. There are strategic changes that are being implicated here. And it’s important for the Department of Defense to report to Congress on this.”

Even so, as NASA’s administrator, he is likely to go along with the desires of both Congress and the White House to reduce funding for NASA’s Earth science programs, perhaps by as much as 25 percent, in favor of more funding for human exploration, and robotic missions to Mars and intriguing moons in the outer Solar System.

For some in the aerospace industry, particularly new space companies such as SpaceX, Bridenstine is seen as a welcome voice in space policy because he has in the past expressed an interest in unleashing the private sector and its lower cost technology in the exploration of space. “I’m very upbeat that his vote will come to the floor,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group for private spaceflight, said Monday night. “I think he’ll be a great leader for NASA at time time that’s critical for the space agency to have clear vision of what the national space goals are.”

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