President Donald Trump’s administration is pointing NASA back toward the moon, and now it has a leader to guide it there. Today, the U.S. Senate narrowly voted 50–49 on partisan lines to confirm Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK) to serve as NASA’s 13th administrator.
Bridenstine, facing a self-imposed term limit on his House of Representatives career, had long sought to lead the $20.7 billion agency, crafting legislation he hoped would influence its direction. But Trump’s nomination of Bridenstine, which came last September, had until now lacked the votes to confirm him. In particular, he faced stiff opposition from Senate Democrats, led by Senator Bill Nelson (D–FL), and several Republicans against whom Bridenstine had campaigned, including Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and John McCain (AZ).
The drama-filled vote, which prompted Vice President Mike Pence to attend as a potential tiebreaker and featured the first vote of Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) with her baby at her side, hinged on the vote of Senator Jeff Flake (R–AZ), who has sought leverage in addressing his non-NASA priorities with the Republican leadership. Flake's vote, and Rubio's decision to drop his opposition yesterday allowed confirmation. The pending retirement of the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, forced his hand, Rubio told USA Today. The agency, so vital to his state’s economy, faced a “gaping leadership void,” he said. “I expect him to lead NASA in a nonpolitical way and to treat Florida fairly,” he added.
Nelson, meanwhile, restated his opposition on the Senate floor, expressing his fears that Bridenstine’s background as a pilot and politician left him without the technical chops to evaluate risk. “What’s not right for NASA is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in the line to make that fateful decision of go or no-go for launch,” Nelson said. But, if Bridenstine were confirmed, he added, “I will work with him for the good of the U.S. space program.”
Today, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), attacked his Republican colleagues for confirming Bridenstine. "There is simply no excuse for voting for someone so unqualified to run NASA," he wrote on Twitter. "They aren't even bothering to make the argument that he will be a good administrator. They are just voting yes and getting out of town. For me this is a good reminder that elections have consequences."
Full plate awaits
The issues demanding Bridenstine’s attention are piling up. The agency’s troubled astrophysics division has seen its landmark mission, the $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, pushed back once again, to a 2020 launch. In turn, the White House has sought to kill the agency’s plans for its next large scope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a move that Congress has so far viewed skeptically. Bridenstine will also decide how the agency will proceed in returning a cache of rock samples collected by the Mars 2020 rover. And the agency continues to develop its delayed heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), which will not fly until 2020, with rumors that an upgrade to a heavier variant could be delayed until later next decade.
Beyond the troubled space telescopes, science at NASA is in a “golden age” with strong congressional support, says Charles Elachi, who led the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, until 2016. Finishing the SLS and getting the United States, in partnership with commercial space companies, back to the business of launching its own astronauts should be Bridenstine’s top priority, he adds. “This requires bold and forceful leadership that is willing to take calculated risks, drastically streamline the bureaucratic decision process, and support a bold technology program that renews NASA[’s] technological leadership,” Elachi says. Although Bridenstine has been an advocate for companies such as SpaceX, he’s also pledged to support the SLS—a precondition for his approval, given congressional support for the rocket.
The White House, led by a revived Space Council, is pivoting NASA’s focus for the next decade back to the moon, proposing a series of lunar missions that would establish a small space station, called the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway, in concert with commercial support. This shift, which Congress has not yet approved or substantially financed, would support further robotic and human exploration of the moon, with an emphasis on its resources, such as water. Some $350 million in the agency’s proposed 2019 budget would support this plan.
Bridenstine has expressed a similar vision, but he’ll need to flesh out what a return to the moon will mean in detail, says G. Scott Hubbard, a space scientist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who previously served as NASA’s first “Mars czar.” Who will pay for what? Will the Europeans move ahead with plans for a so-called moon village? How much will NASA rely on SpaceX and Blue Origin? And will plans for Mars as the final destination be more than lip service? Those plans, developed under former President Barack Obama’s administration, were “on the verge of becoming an affordable reality,” Hubbard said. “To throw that all away would a foolish loss. Mars is the ultimate goal.”
Critics will be watching
Democratic opposition to Bridenstine has largely stemmed from remarks he made early in his tenure in the House, in 2013, that were skeptical of human-caused climate change. Bridenstine has since acknowledged a human influence and has sounded support for NASA’s $1.9 billion in earth science research—a major buttress of climate science in the United States. He vowed in confirmation hearings to heed the guidance of the decadal survey compiled by the National Academy of Sciences and published earlier this year.
Although the Trump administration has proposed cuts to NASA’s earth science programs in its budgets, including killing several missions, the Senate has stymied those efforts, keeping earth science funding flat while raising investment in planetary science. This bipartisan compromise has even extended to the House, where Republican legislators this week recanted desires to slash earth science spending. Groups defending climate science will watch the agency closely to see whether Bridenstine’s appointment leads to political interference.
Getting past the partisan divide of his nomination and winning over the agency and its centers will be Bridenstine’s first task, says John Logsdon, founder of The George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. If he does that, then he might be able to win some deference from Congress, which is deeply involved the agency’s operations.
Bridenstein’s political ties could be a boon for seeing the agency’s desires addressed by the White House, his supporters say. But, with Lightfoot’s departure, Bridenstine should put a priority on finding a technical deputy administrator, Hubbard added. Such a duo could lead to success. After all, it’s happened before: James Webb, who led NASA to the moon for the first time, was a lawyer. But his two immediate deputies were engineers.