NASA's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, who has led the agency since January 2017, announced today that he will be retiring effective 30 April. The move places pressure on President Donald Trump’s administration and the Senate to secure long-term leadership for the agency.
Last September, the White House nominated Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to lead NASA. Bridenstine's nomination has been advanced by the committee overseeing the agency, but it has stalled in the Senate because of opposition from Democrats and, especially, two senators from Florida, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R). Both have expressed their preference that a “space professional” lead the agency.
Rubio also has personal reasons to oppose the nomination: Bridenstine actively opposed his 2016 presidential bid in campaign ads for Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX). This is the real reason for Rubio's blockade, according to Senator Jim Inhofe (R–OK), who spoke to The Oklahoman for an article published today. “He doesn't like Jim Bridenstine,” Inhofe said while recounting a recent conversation he had with Rubio. “I said, ‘What do I have to do or what do we have to do to get you to stand back and let him into this job?' [Rubio] said, ‘Not a chance. I'm not going to do it.' Those are his words.”
Rubio’s opposition, and the absence of Senator John McCain (R–AZ), who is undergoing cancer treatment, means the Senate lacks the necessary 50 votes to confirm Bridenstine. Senate Democrats have flatly opposed his nomination, citing remarks he has made in the past expressing skepticism about human contributions to climate change.
Lightfoot is already the longest serving acting administrator of the agency. He has steered NASA to focus back on the moon, following the guidance of the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence and Scott Pace, the executive secretary of the reconstituted National Space Council. His retirement comes as a surprise and should force the administration to act, especially because NASA lacks a deputy administrator to take over for Lightfoot, says John Logsdon, founder of The George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
"Either the Senate should vote up or down on Bridenstine, or the White House should convince him to withdraw and nominate not only a new candidate as administrator, but also a candidate for deputy," Logsdon says. "With the president's recent praise of NASA, he owes it to the agency to provide with a worthy successor to Lightfoot."
Some House Republicans, including a fellow Oklahoman, echoed this view in interviews last week with E&E News. "I would hope whatever the circumstances are in the United States Senate, at some point we'll decide the future of NASA's importance—either confirm this guy or get a new guy,” Representative Frank Lucas (R–OK) told Climatewire.
Lightfoot did not give a reason for his departure. In news that’s likely related, the agency announced late last week that another civilian, Steve Jurczyk, will now serve as NASA’s acting associate administrator, the position that Lightfoot previously held and the agency's highest ranking civilian slot.
The administration will need to name a new acting administrator to lead NASA, but it is not clear who is on that list.