President Donald Trump’s pick to lead NASA, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R–OK), is a political ally who has long lobbied for the job. If confirmed by the Senate, he is expected to serve as a champion for advocates who seek to open up commercial access to space.
But his views on climate change are likely to draw opposition from some senators who will consider his nomination.
And some critics are wary of naming a politician to lead an agency known for science and technology.
Bridenstine, who served as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium prior to joining the House of Representatives in 2012, will be expected to immediately help the $18 billion agency define how it will reach its long-term mission of sending humans to Mars. But many expect that Bridenstine, who has written about the commercial potential of exploiting lunar resources, could shift the agency's emphasis toward the moon.
"If he pivots toward the moon, he may pivot away from Mars science, as some of his colleagues in Congress have sought to do," says John Logsdon, the founder of The George Washington University's Space Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.
In the Senate, Bridenstine will likely face stiff opposition from Democrats, in particular for climate-contrarian comments he made in 2013, during his first term in the House, while lobbying for additional support for weather research. "Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago," he said. "Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles."
Bridenstine has not made many similar remarks since, but the 2013 comment will likely draw attention during his upcoming confirmation hearings. "He probably regrets the way he said it," says Kelvin Droegemeier, vice president for research at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, who worked with Bridenstine for several years crafting parts of a weather-research bill that became law this past spring. "He'd probably say it differently today."
He won't come in and say we're going to discontinue climate financing and take earth science and trash it. He absolutely believes the planet is warming, that [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, and that it contributes to warming.
Although the Trump administration has proposed stiff cuts to earth science at NASA, the Senate has so far warded them off. Droegemeier does not expect Bridenstine to support slashing the agency’s budget, especially given that much of NASA's mission can be framed in terms of collecting data that are as applicable to understanding weather patterns as to understanding climate change. "He won't come in and say we're going to discontinue climate financing and take earth science and trash it," Droegemeier predicts. "He absolutely believes the planet is warming, that [carbon dioxide] is a greenhouse gas, and that it contributes to warming."
Bridenstine has been engaged with NASA for several years now, crafting legislation that has sought a more cohesive framework for the government's role in space, with an emphasis on serving as a pioneer in technology. That close engagement is relatively unique among past nominees, Logsdon says. "He's coming to NASA with a much more articulated view of the program than any predecessor."
Bridenstine does not have a technical background, having studied economics and psychology at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and receiving an MBA from Cornell University. In the House, he has served on the science, space, and technology and armed services committees. He's seen as an ally of Trump, and his nomination has already drawn opposition from lawmakers—including Senators Marco Rubio (R–FL) and Bill Nelson (D–FL)—who say the agency should be led by a "space professional." Bridenstine has shown little in the way of executive experience, with his career including brief forays into real estate and a rocket-racing league.
But Bridenstine's political chops could serve the agency well, says Laurie Leshin, the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, and a former high-ranking NASA official who was set to help lead Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's potential transition. "NASA tends to value people who are geeks like them, in a good way," she says. But NASA often has plenty of technical expertise while lacking political savvy. "Somebody with that background, I think we should give him a chance to be successful."
*Update, 2 September, 6:59 a.m.: This article has been updated to clarify one reason for Senator Marco Rubio's opposition to Bridenstine's nomination. It is because of Bridenstine's lack of experience in space exploration, not his views on climate change.