NASA has a full-time administrator at last. Today, the Senate confirmed President Donald Trump's candidate, Representative Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), for the job, voting 50 to 49 along the lines of the party. The vote finally ends the longest period that the space agency has left without a permanent leader.
It was a close decision for Bridenstine in the Senate today. With Senator John McCain (R-AZ) absent, the vote went to Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), who has been away from the Senate after recently having a baby, and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), who endured for a while. If Flake had voted no, he would have created a tie vote, 49 yeses to 49 us. If that happened, Duckworth could have sunk the confirmation. However, Flake eventually voted for Bridenstine, confirming the nomination. (Finally, Duckworth came to the court with his newborn to vote "no").
"It is an honor to be confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as Administrator of NASA," Bridenstine said in a statement after the vote. "I am honored for this opportunity, and once again I thank President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their confidence, and I look forward to working with the outstanding NASA team to achieve the president's vision for US space leadership."
It has been a difficult task to get to this point, thanks to a slow administration and a divided Congress. President Trump did not nominate Bridenstine until September of last year, and the congressman immediately became a divisive election. Some legislators rejected the idea of a politician who ran a science agency, while many criticized his comments on climate change and LGBT rights. Despite a Republican-controlled Congress, for months it did not appear that Bridenstine had the necessary votes to be confirmed.
The leadership of NASA has been in limbo
Meanwhile, NASA's leadership has been in limbo. The agency has relied on an interim administrator, Robert Lightfoot, since President Barack Obama left office in January 2017. Lightfoot has diligently attended hearings and helped with budget requests, despite not having been appointed by the administration. But in March, he announced his plans to retire on April 30. That put Congress in a fight to confirm Trump's election before then; otherwise, NASA would have been forced to rely on a second temporary leader, something that had never happened before.
As an administrator, Bridenstine is now tasked with helping to execute the administration's vision for NASA. Trump has told the space agency to return humans to the Moon, as well as the transition from the International Space Station and the low-Earth orbit domain to the private space industry over the next decade. Bridenstine will have to work with both the White House and Congress to discover how to turn these bold plans into reality.
A former Navy pilot, Bridenstine has been active in space policy during his time representing Oklahoma. Because his state is often affected by tornadoes, he has defended a pilot program to facilitate the US government. UU Collect meteorological data from commercial satellites. Bridenstine is also the author of his own space policy bill, called the American Space Renaissance Act, aimed at delineating new regulations for the space industry.
However, Bridenstine is not an engineer or a scientist. And although NASA has had administrators with no scientific background, Bridenstine will be the first politician to hold the post, and that does not sit well with many lawmakers. "NASA is one of the last refuges of partisan politics," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) during Bridenstine's confirmation hearing in November. "NASA needs a leader to join us, do not separate us, respectfully, Congressman Bridenstine, I do not think he is that leader."
"NASA needs a leader that unites us, does not divide us."
Many in the scientific community have also criticized Bridenstine's views on climate change. In 2013, the congressman declared inaccurate during a speech that global temperatures had stopped increasing more than a decade ago. However, during his confirmation hearing, Bridenstine said he does believe that humans have contributed to global warming (although he did not say to what extent). He has also indicated that, as administrator of NASA, he plans to defer to scientists on how to better study the climate.
Others have criticized Bridenstine's positions against LGBT rights; in 2013, he condemned the decision of the Supreme Court to constitutionalize marriage between people of the same sex. And yesterday, Daily Beast reported that Bridenstine had mishandled the funds of a non-profit organization he once managed, using the organization's money to help a separate company he owned.
Photo of Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
The controversy surrounding Bridenstine has made his confirmation slow and difficult. His nomination was narrowly expanded through a subcommittee of the Senate in November, thanks to a vote along the party lines. Then, his nomination had to be presented again in early 2018 because it had not been confirmed before the first session of the Senate ended. Meanwhile, NASA has set a new record: before Trump, the agency had only been without a leader confirmed by the Senate for no more than six months. Now that registration gap has been extended to 15 months.
Perhaps, the most notable person in the way of Bridenstine's confirmation has been Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). When Bridenstine was first announced as Trump's nominee, Rubio criticized the idea of a politician in charge of NASA along with the other Florida senator, Bill Nelson. However, Rubio changed his mind after interim administrator Lightfoot announced his retirement plans, threatening NASA with a leadership vacuum. The mission of the space agency "is vital for Florida," Rubio said in a statement yesterday. "I hope he leads NASA in a non-political way and treats Florida fairly."
Yesterday, the Senate simply voted (again) to end the debate and advance the Bridenstine nomination to a full confirmation hearing. At the beginning, the votes were tied, 49 to 49, with all Democrats choosing not to advance in the nomination, as well as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ). But Flake eventually changed his vote, so the final count was 50 to 48.
Now that Bridenstine has the job, he has at least two and a half years to lead NASA and advocate for the administration's space policy. As the Trump administration indicated, NASA could have big changes on the horizon.