Today, the Trump administration’s pick for NASA administrator will testify in front of a Senate committee, answering questions as to why he should run the US space agency. The nominee is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who has support within the spaceflight community, but is considered controversial by some within Congress and the science community.
Rumors that Bridenstine would be the administration’s pick started circulating just after the election, though the decision wasn’t officially announced until early September — more than seven months after President Donald Trump took office. The choice wasn’t completely surprising, given the congressman’s extensive interest in space while representing Oklahoma. A former military pilot, Bridenstine has been very invested in the government’s weather satellite programs, and he’s also drafted legislation aimed at updating how the US oversees commercial, military, and civil space activities.
Rumors that Bridenstine would be the administration’s pick started circulating just after the election
But pushback to his nomination was immediate. Perhaps the biggest initial outcry revolved around Bridenstine’s lack of science credentials. Many claimed that this would be the first time that someone without a science or engineering background would lead NASA. That isn’t true, though. James Webb, who oversaw much of the Apollo program to the Moon, had degrees in education and law before becoming the NASA administrator in 1961, and worked mostly as a public servant before his tenure. And Sean O’Keefe was the deputy director for the White House Office of Management and Budget before helming NASA from 2001 to 2005.
Still, Bridenstine would be the first elected politician to have the job, and that doesn’t sit well with some in Congress. When Bridenstine was first nominated, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) both came out against the decision. “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson told Politico at the time. “I just think it could be devastating for the space program,” Rubio added. “Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission.”
The science community has also been critical of comments Bridenstine made on climate change in 2013. During a speech on the House floor, he incorrectly stated that the Earth hasn’t been getting warmer over the last decade. "Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” he said. “Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles." In fact, our planet has warmed by roughly 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880, as a result of our burning of fossil fuel, which pumps heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Bridenstine echoed the sentiment that climate change isn’t fueled by human causes in an interview with Aerospace America.
However, Bridenstine has a long history with weather research — and he’s in favor of studying Earth’s climate through government agencies like NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He’s been very involved in the weather satellite programs of both NOAA and the Defense Department, and he’s been a big advocate of the US government using data from commercial satellites to improve forecasting. He addressed this interest during a space conference earlier this year: "People often say, 'Why are you so involved in space issues? You don't have any space interests in Oklahoma.' You bet I do. My constituents get killed in tornadoes."
His thoughts on how the climate is studied differ from many Republicans and a few space advisors to Trump, who have argued that NASA should get rid of its Earth science programs and transfer them to NOAA. “As a United States Representative from Oklahoma, I have led efforts to improve severe weather prediction and I have come to appreciate how complex Earth is as a system,” he wrote in a Senate questionnaire. “NASA must continue studying our home planet.”
“I think he clearly understands the delicate balance between what commercial can provide and what are uniquely government functions.”
Even more sinister criticisms have been lobbied against Bridenstine recently, however. Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) wrote a letter to the chairs of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, arguing that he has consistently opposed equal rights for women, immigrants, and those in the LGBTQ community.
But within the spaceflight community, it seems that Bridenstine has very strong support. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents many new space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, heartily endorses Bridenstine. “I think he clearly understands the delicate balance between what commercial can provide and what are uniquely government functions,” Eric Stallmer, president of CSF, tells The Verge. “And he’s seen this growing role that the commercial sector is playing.” Bridenstine also has the support of a few key members of Congress who are heavily invested in space. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who has been a very vocal advocate for the development of NASA’s Space Launch System, tweeted out his approval of Bridenstine in September.
Given both the strong support and opposition to Bridenstine, today’s hearing at the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation could be contentious. Bridenstine is scheduled to testify along with three other witnesses who are nominated for other administrative positions. The hearing gets underway at 10AM ET, and you can watch it live.