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What NASA loses without a permanent leader

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A group of representatives is urging the Senate to confirm Trump’s pick

Senate Commerce Committee Holds Nomination Hearing For James Bridenstine To Become NASA Administrator
Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK) testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee during his confirmation hearing.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

More than 60 representatives from the House are calling on the Senate to get a move on and confirm the Trump administration’s nominee for NASA administrator. The group — which includes mostly Republicans and a dozen Democrats — sent a signed letter to the Senate majority and minority leaders, urging them to vote and accept Trump’s candidate, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). They argue that without a leader, it’ll be hard to oversee the ambitious plans that the government has for NASA.

NASA has been without a permanent administrator since its previous leader, former astronaut Charles Bolden, resigned the day Trump took office over a year ago. The space agency has had an acting administrator — Robert Lightfoot — who has been fulfilling the role in the meantime, but this month, he announced his plans to retire at the end of April. Unless a permanent administrator is confirmed before then, NASA will be forced to rely on another temporary leader.

It’s an unusual situation that NASA has never quite faced before. The longest gaps in permanent leadership hovered around five and a half months. Without the position truly filled, NASA lacks an effective political liaison, someone who both understands the White House’s visions and the realities of what NASA can do. “No one else can really be inside the agency helping to have NASA understand where the president wants to take the organization and then go to the White House to say, ‘These are NASA’s capabilities,’” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama, tells The Verge.

Plus, uncertain leadership makes it hard for NASA to execute bold new changes, and that’s exactly what the administration wants for NASA right now: to do big, new things. Trump directed the agency to send humans back to the Moon, and his administration recently proposed ending direct federal funding for the International Space Station in order to transition the domain of lower Earth orbit to the private sector. “Now is not the time to leave NASA rudderless,” the representatives write in their letter. “We urge the Senate to confirm Jim Bridenstine swiftly and allow him to lead the world’s premier space agency into the next age of space exploration.”

Trump nominated Bridentstine back in September, as the Oklahoma representative has been heavily involved with space policy in his home state over the last few years. Since tornadoes are a problem in Oklahoma, Bridenstine has worked with NOAA and NASA to help improve weather forecasting from satellites. He’s also drafted his own legislation to change regulation surrounding the commercial space industry.

Still, Bridenstine faces an uphill battle. After he was nominated, he endured a very contentious preliminary confirmation hearing in November with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Many of the Democratic senators on the committee called out Bridenstine for his incorrect statements on climate change, as well as his support of anti-LGBT initiatives. But above all, many criticized that Bridenstine is a politician without a science background (though other non-scientists have run NASA before).

“The leader of NASA should not be political. The leader of NASA should not be bipartisan; the leader of NASA should be nonpartisan. And when that has occurred — when it has been partisan in the past — we’ve had a disaster,” Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said during the hearing.

A week after the hearing, the committee narrowly confirmed Bridenstine’s nomination. His candidacy was approved along party lines, 14 to 13. But after that, not much has happened. Bridenstine’s nomination had to be resubmitted to the committee in January after the Senate’s first session ended, and a vote along party lines moved him forward again. Now, the next step is a full confirmation hearing in the Senate, but that event has yet to be scheduled.

Senate Commerce Committee Holds Nomination Hearing For James Bridenstine To Become NASA Administrator
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) at Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

It’s possible that Bridenstine just doesn’t have the support. Potentially, all 49 of the Senate Democrats could oppose the nomination. Meanwhile, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has expressed his uncertainty with Bridenstine. And with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) still on leave for his cancer treatments, a no from Rubio could tank the process. The nominee needs at least 50 votes to become the administrator.

Despite the backlash to Bridenstine’s politician status, being the NASA administrator means mostly working with politicians, says Garver. “I do think it is more a political job than an engineering job. Neither Charlie [Bolden] nor I did any engineering,” she says. “You can’t be an astrophysicist and a propulsion engineer; you got to trust your people to do that. Being able to advocate for your agency on the hill is a big part of it.”

The administrator’s biggest role is helping to implement the White House agenda in a realistic way by balancing the administration’s desires with the needs of NASA employees. A big task is working on the president’s budget request each year, which details how to allocate funds for the space agency. Lightfoot has been instrumental in that process for the last two budget cycles — though he has admitted that it would be better if an actual White House nominee had his job.

“Because [Lightfoot] isn’t the president’s person, there is a loss of accountability,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. “Having the president’s own representative to guide the day-to-day implementation of the policy is part of that accountability.”

Senate Commerce Committee Holds Nomination Hearing For James Bridenstine To Become NASA Administrator
Rep. James Bridenstine (R-OK) testifies before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee during his confirmation hearing.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Meanwhile, many different entities are vying to have a say in how the space agency should be run. There’s the National Space Council — led by Vice President Mike Pence — which was formed to help guide the US space policy agenda. Then there’s Congress, which ultimately determines NASA’s budget based on the president’s budget request. Garver says that it’s easier for Congress to exploit NASA when a permanent leader is absent. “The balance of powers is off at NASA, and what you’re getting is the feeding frenzy from Congress who just want things in their political leadership,” she says. “So if Congress is running it, that’s what you get: you’re going to end up with an agency that doesn’t have an overall driving purpose but just employs jobs in certain districts.”

And that means all of these bold visions the administration has for NASA — like going to the Moon, launching new robotic missions to deep space, and reworking the space station — could be harder to fight for. The representatives in Congress who wrote yesterday’s letter say the same, which is why they want action now. “We are keenly aware of how valuable NASA is, not only to our nation, but also the entire world,” they wrote. “It would be a travesty to America’s space program for it to remain leaderless at this critical time when America’s space industry is making rapid advances that will set the course of space leadership for decades to come.”

Now it’s a waiting game to see if their words change any minds. For now, there doesn’t seem to be a clear path ahead for Bridenstine to get the job.