President Trump’s decision to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) to be the 13th NASA Administrator is encountering headwinds from Florida’s two Senators, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R). The major concern is that Bridenstine would be the first politician to head NASA instead of a career in science or engineering or managing a large technical organization.
Bridenstine, 42, is a military pilot — first with the Navy and currently with the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He spent 9 years on active duty, has a degree from Rice University with a triple major (economics, psychology and business), an MBA from Cornell, and business experience in real estate, ranching, aerospace, and defense contracting. After leaving active duty, he was Executive Director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium. He was elected to Congress in 2012, at which time he said he would serve no more than three terms. He is now in his third term.
The nomination will have to be approved by the Senate. First it must be approved by the committee with authorization jurisdiction over the agency, which is the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee. The chair of the full committee is Sen. John Thune (R-South Dakota) and of the subcommittee is Ted Cruz (R-Texas). The top Democrats are Bill Nelson (D-Florida) for the full committee and Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) for the subcommittee.
In a statement today, Nelson said “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.” Nelson is one of NASA’s strongest advocates in the Senate. He flew on a space shuttle mission, STS 61-C, in 1985 when he was a member of the House of Representatives and his status as an astronaut gives him considerable influence in the Senate on NASA matter. He is often credited, for example, with making Charlie Bolden administrator of NASA in 2009 (Bolden was the pilot of STS 61-C) and, along with then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas), crafting the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that reached a compromise with the Obama Administration on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program.
Rubio gave a more extensive explanation for his reticence about Bridenstine to Politico. He is worried about Bridenstine’s “political baggage.” He argued that NASA is one of the few agencies “which has been largely free of politics” and he does not want that to change lest it slow down the agency. Politico pointed out that Bridenstine, who originally backed Cruz in last year’s Republican presidential primary (later he was a Trump supporter), made harsh statements about Rubio, one of the other Republican contenders at the time, but added that Rubio indicated that was not a factor.
The fact that the two Senators are expressing concerns does not necessarily mean they will vote against the nomination, but it is important to note that a single Senator can delay Senate consideration of a nomination.
Meanwhile, three space organizations have come out in support of Bridenstine. The Space Foundation and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) both issued press releases praising the nomination. Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor said Bridenstine is dedicated to ensuring America remains a leader in space and “is the person to lead the agency that so many Americans care deeply about.” CSF chairman Alan Stern called Bridenstine an “outstanding choice” and CSF president Eric Stallmer said the nomination demonstrates the Trump Administration’s intent to fulfill its campaign promise of an “inspirational vision for America’s space enterprise to explore and develop America’s 21st Century Frontier.” The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) tweeted its congratulations to Bridenstine on his nomination.
It is accurate that Bridenstine would be the first politician to head NASA if his nomination is confirmed, but media reports that all previous NASA administrators have been scientists, engineers or astronauts are incorrect. James Webb, who led NASA from 1961-1968 and is often cited as the best NASA Administrator of all time, was a lawyer. (NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is named after him.) More recently, Sean O’Keefe (2001-2005), was a public administrator who was deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) before serving as NASA Administrator. He had been DOD’s comptroller, and although he served as Secretary of the Navy, it was only for 6 months at the end of George H.W. Bush’s term. Otherwise, most of his career prior to NASA was as a congressional staffer or an academic.
Webb and O’Keefe are two of the 11 men who have served as NASA Administrator (one, Jim Fletcher, served twice, so was the fourth and seventh Administrator). The other nine had science or technical degrees, managed large organizations, and/or were former astronauts: T. Keith Glennan, Tom Paine, Jim Fletcher, Bob Frosch, Jim Beggs, Richard Truly, Dan Goldin, Mike Griffin, and Charlie Bolden.