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Jason DavisNovember 1, 2017

Bridenstine makes his case for NASA administrator job

The White House's pick to run NASA got his chance today to tell Congress why he's the right person for the job.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing Wednesday to consider four executive branch nominations, including Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine for NASA administrator. Republicans and Democrats spent nearly three hours showering Bridenstine with both praise and criticism, questioning him on a wide variety of topics that included partisanship, climate change and LGBTQ rights.

The Trump administration nominated Bridenstine for the position on September 1. NASA has been without an administrator since Charles Bolden customarily resigned January 20, on inauguration day. Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot has served 285 days in office, an all-time record that surpasses George Low, who temporarily ran the agency under President Nixon for 222 days in 1970 and 1971. 

Bridenstine's nomination must be approved by a majority vote of the full commerce committee, and then the Senate itself. Senate confirmations used to require 60 votes, but Democrats changed the rules to require only a simple majority during the Obama administration.

Bridenstine shared his moment in the spotlight with three other Trump administration nominees, including a commissioner for the consumer product safety commission, an assistant secretary of commerce, environmental observation and prediction, and an assistant secretary of commerce, industry and analysis. But Senators aimed the majority of their questions at Bridenstine, who was clearly the hearing's main attraction.

Multiple-nominee confirmation hearings are more often reserved for foreign policy positions, such as ambassadors or State Department positions. While hosting more than one nominee at once can expedite efficiency in the case of non-controversial picks, Senate committees can also use this tactic to limit the amount of questions heaped on a single nominee. 

Jim Bridenstine

NASA / Joel Kowsky

Jim Bridenstine
Jim Bridenstine speaks at his NASA administrator nomination hearing on November 1, 2017

Space policy

The bulk of Senators' questions did not focus on the nuts and bolts of Bridenstine's vision for NASA, including how he would carry out Vice President Mike Pence's recent declaration that Americans will return to the surface of the Moon. What little details there were came mostly from Bridenstine himself. 

In his opening remarks, Bridenstine pledged to follow the guidance of the NASA Transition Authorization Act, and expressed support for the agency's Space Launch System, Orion, and commercial crew program. With regard to science, he mentioned the Mars 2020 rover, Europa Clipper, the James Webb Space Telescope, Parker Solar Probe and two Earth science missions, NISAR and IceSat-2. Also in his remarks, and later in the hearing, Bridenstine touched on the importance of NASA's community-driven decadal surveys, which set priorities for science programs in ten-year increments. 

Before Bridenstine spoke, Senator Bill Nelson gave a lengthy speech outlining his concerns over the nomination; in particular, his previously stated position that a politician shouldn't lead NASA. 

"The leader of NASA should not be political. The leader of NASA should not be bipartisan. The leader of NASA should be non-partisan," Nelson said.

Bridenstine responded to this charge later in the hearing by pointing to James Webb, who served as NASA administrator under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson from 1961 to 1968. Prior to his stint at NASA, Webb had a long political career, including a turn as Undersecretary of State for President Harry Truman. 

"He certainly did great work on behalf of this country," Bridenstine said of Webb. "I think he did it honorably, without politicizing or making it partisan, and that would be my model." 

Climate change

As expected, Democrats pressed Bridenstine on his past skepticism of climate change. Bridenstine's views on the subject appear to have evolved, in that he no longer rejects the notion humans are warming the planet. 

"I'll tell you what I believe," Bridenstine replied, in a question to Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz. "I believe carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. I believe that humans have contributed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

When pressed by Schatz, Bridenstine stopped short of saying current climate-warming trends are caused primarily by human activities

"That is a question that I do not have an answer to. But I do know that humans have absolutely contributed to global warming," said Bridenstine.

Walking this line could give Bridenstine a smoother path to confirmation, making him a less-polarizing choice than other Trump appointees, such as fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt. Pruitt currently leads the Environmental Protection Agency after having sued it multiple times as a state attorney general during the Obama administration. 

Bridenstine also reiterated his larger interest in weather modeling, as a representative from a state periodically afflicted by devastating tornadoes. He pledged he would not punish NASA scientists for conducting climate research, nor did he intend to eliminate the agency's Earth science division.

Supporters and detractors

Outside of the Senate commerce committee, Bridenstine has garnered support from several key corners of the space community.

Alabama Senator Richard Shelby, who is fiercely protective of NASA's Space Launch System, endorsed Bridenstine. So has the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, while the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration said his nomination "advances the framework for U.S. leadership in space." Colorado Congressman Ed Perlmutter, a Democrat, also supports Bridenstine.

Washington Senator Patty Murray, however, has made it clear she will not vote for Bridenstine's nomination. In a letter to the committee, she said Bridenstine's LBGTQ views made him a bad choice to lead an agency as diverse as NASA.

New Jersey Senator Corey Booker addressed this point, offering praise for Bridenstine's "humility" during a prior meeting while expressing concerns about his stance on children raised by same-sex couples.

"So if you're NASA administrator, and someone asks you questions about sexual morality, you're going to stay consistent with your past statements on how you view same-sex couples raising children?" Booker said. 

"I believe every person has value and worth, and I absolutely believe that, and I will be committed to making sure there is equal opportunity, and standards will be uniform," said Bridenstine. "I want to make sure every person at NASA has the opportunity to excel based on the merits of their work exclusively."

What's next

After the hearing, South Dakota Senator John Thune, who chairs the committee, told reporters he expects to hold a vote advancing Bridenstine's nomination to the full Senate as early as next Wednesday. He believes Bridenstine will ultimately be confirmed.

When the full Senate would vote is less clear. Even if confirmed relatively quickly, Bridenstine may be unable to make drastic changes to NASA's 2019 budget, which is scheduled for release in February 2018 and is nearing its final form this month. From a fiscal standpoint, his vision for the agency might not get legs until the 2020 fiscal year.

The average time for the Senate to approve a White House NASA administrator pick is 42 days. It's been 61 days thus far; the longest time taken by the Senate was 80 days, for Richard Truly under George H. W. Bush in 1989.

Read more: Space Policy

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Jason Davis

Journalist and Digital Editor for The Planetary Society
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