Jason DavisSep 01, 2017

Your guide to Jim Bridenstine, the new nominee for NASA administrator

The White House has announced it will nominate Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine to become NASA's next administrator.

The news came late Friday evening, before a three-day U.S. holiday weekend. In a statement, NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said he looked forward to working with the White House to ensure a smooth transition.

Bridenstine must be confirmed by the Senate before taking office. Today's announcement prompted immediate backlash from Florida Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican, and Bill Nelson, a Democrat. Rubio and Nelson told Politico they had concerns about a politician leading NASA.

"I just think it could be devastating for the space program," Rubio said. 

Rubio and Nelson's opposition is notable because Bridenstine has long been the assumed frontrunner for the position. Before the Obama administration settled on Charlie Bolden for NASA administrator in 2009, they floated other names, including Air Force Major General Scott Gration. After Senator Nelson publicly opposed the choice, the White House withdrew Gration from consideration.

Rubio stopped short of saying whether or not he would block Bridenstine's nomination.

The average time it takes to confirm a NASA administrator is 40 days. The fastest an administrator has been confirmed was James Webb, in 1961 (15 days), and the longest time it has taken was 80 days, for Richard Truly, in 1989.

What do we know about Bridenstine? Here's a guide to the potential future NASA chief.

Jim Bridenstine portrait
Jim Bridenstine portrait Image: From spacerenaissanceact.com

Political background

Bridenstine represents Oklahoma's 1st District, which includes most of Tulsa and is home to almost 800,000 people. He was elected in 2012, and has since run unopposed, winning reelection in 2014 and 2016. He serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee. Most Congressional ranking tools score Bridenstine as extremely conservative. He initially backed Texas Senator Ted Cruz for president before switching to Trump when Cruz withdrew.

Military and academic background

Bridenstine was as a Navy pilot for nine years, and flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He holds the rank of Lieutenant Commander, and is a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He earned a triple bachelor's degree in economics, psychology and business from Rice University, and has an MBA from Cornell University.

Why space?

In February 2017, Bridenstine answered this question during a speech at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington:

"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." 

For Bridenstine, the ability to detect severe storms with space satellites is extremely important. He supports cross-agency climate satellite programs like Suomi-NPP and JPSS, but wants to augment government systems with commercial capabilities to increase data collection and offset potential coverage gaps.

He has previously expressed skepticism of climate change. In 2013, he said global temperature changes correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles, rather than human activity. The following year, he worked with Ted Cruz on a complementary Senate and House bill called the American Energy Renaissance Act which would have removed climate change provisions from five existing laws, including the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. 

Space Renaissance Act

Bridenstine's signature bill is the Space Renaissance Act. It's stated purpose is to "permanently secure the United States as the preeminent spacefaring nation," through military space capabilities, commercial innovation, and "stability, accountability, and mission clarity at NASA."

The Act, which has its own website, was not necessarily designed to pass; Bridenstine describes it as a clearinghouse for ideas that can be inserted into other bills. During his speech at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference, he said this has already happened on several occasions, and before he was nominated as NASA administrator, he planned to introduce an updated version of the bill.

Government-owned versus commercial space

Bridenstine has expressly supported NASA's Space Launch System and Orion, though he remains a strong commercial space advocate and describes his philosophy as centering around four points in particular: 

  • The right balance must be struck between what the government owns and operate, versus what the government purchases as a service.
  • The commercial space regulatory environment needs to be overhauled and streamlined.
  • Space situational awareness—essentially, tracking space debris—should be done by a civilian agency or the private sector, not the Department of Defense.
  • Regulatory certainty and clarity must be provided for companies interested in new, non-traditional space activities like asteroid mining and private space stations.

Moon vs. Mars

Bridenstine believes it is critical for America to send astronauts back to the Moon, for reasons that include national security, commercial interests, and science. He seems particularly concerned with China's lunar ambitions, and the threat of space-based anti-satellite capabilities.

Whereas NASA's current policy is to use cislunar space as a proving ground for Mars, Bridenstine sees cislunar space and the Moon's surface as a proving ground for private industry. He says there is interest in commercial companies operating on the Moon, as evidenced by investors supporting programs like the Google Lunar XPrize

At the Commercial Space Transportation Conference, Bridenstine said he would favor focusing on the Moon's poles, where water ice exists in permanently shadowed craters. Robots would go first, to be followed by humans.

A week later, speaking at a Science, Space, and Technology Committee hearing, he described one possible model for government and commercial lunar partnerships:

"It's possible that the U.S. government could, in essence, provide transportation to not only lunar orbit, but to the lunar surface, and have the private sector invest in developing not only the moon, but in the capacity for cislunar, which is a geopolitical concern (a reference to China's activities) right now for the United States."

Bridenstine also supports sending humans to Mars:

"When we talk about the comprehensive national power of the United States of America—when we talk about the economic advantages of having the entire world unite with the United States of America to accomplish these big strategic objectives, I think that is excellent, and I think that's what Mars is—that grand vision."

He is, however, skeptical of NASA's current Journey to Mars program, based on testimony he has received from various experts. He isn't convinced NASA can reach Mars by the 2030s, and believes establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface could be an important intermediate first step.

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