Jim Bridenstine, a Republican Congressman from Oklahoma, has been sworn in as NASA administrator – the political appointee who leads the space agency. The appointment comes 15 months after former astronaut Charles Bolden resigned as administrator. Brindenstine is 42 and was approved for the job by the US Senate by a single vote margin last week.
“I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the president’s vision for American leadership in space,” Bridenstine said in a statement. But as he sets out on that mission, the former US Navy pilot faces a series of high-flying opportunities and potential difficulties, including the fate of of manned flight beyond Earth orbit and of advanced observatories and the burgeoning commercialization of spaceflight.
The unprecedented closeness of the Senate vote, which came more than seven months after the Trump administration nominated Bridenstine, indicated the degree of discontent that surrounded his candidacy. Critics in and outside the Senate complained that Bridenstine lacks the experience as an astronaut or manager of space missions that most of his predecessors possessed. They also expressed fears that he will take a partisan approach to managing the traditionally non-political space agency. And they pointed to his less than enthusiastic acceptance, before and during his Senate testimony, of the reality of human-induced climate change, an important factor in NASA’s Earth exploration research.
“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional,” said Florida Democratic senator Bill Nelson during Senate debate, noting that Bridenstine’ only direct connection to space issues was as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium from 2008 to 2010. “What’s not right for NASA is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in line to make that fateful decision of go or no go for launch,” Nelson added. Despite his criticisms, however, Nelson has indicated that he would work with Bridenstine if he were confirmed.
Critics also remain unconvinced by Bridenstine’s moderation of his initially sceptical view of human-caused global warming. “I am aware of his dismissive statements about climate change,” Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann told Physics World. “I believe that he has the wrong stuff when it comes to the sort of leadership NASA needs in the 21st century.”
Bridenstine’s supporters point out that neither James Webb, NASA’s administrator during the build-up to the Apollo Moon-landing programme, nor Sean O’Keefe, who led the agency from 2001 to 2004, had experience in space projects before their appointment.
Bridenstine demonstrated an interest in space issues in 2016, when he sponsored a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act in Congress. “It’s a very thoughtful look at needed reform,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus in George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “He’s not coming in naïve.”
G Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and overseer of the agency’s first Mars programme who is now at Stanford University, agrees. “He has exhibited a significant interest in the policy,” he says. “He wasn’t just grabbed from the hallway.”
Bridenstine certainly inherits a tough set of issues from Robert Lightfoot, who leaves NASA next week after service as acting administrator since Charles Bolden’s departure. NASA must rely on Russian and commercial spacecraft to launch its astronauts until it develops its Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft. It must work with Congress on deciding whether or not to pull out of the International Space Station. It must deal with delays in its two major observatory projects – the James Webb Space Telescope and the WFIRST.
Back to the Moon
But perhaps NASA’s biggest challenge will be to carry out the Trump administration’s pivot to the Moon as a gateway on the path towards manned missions to Mars. In those efforts, “Bridenstine will put even more reliance on the commercial sector,” Logsdon says. “There’s no going back, nor should there be.” Meanwhile a new chief scientist, the physicist and former director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division Jim Green, will join Bridenstine in the agency’s headquarters.
As observers see it, the new administrator needs another critical individual on board: a deputy administrator schooled in the culture of NASA and space science. Such an appointment “would tend to quieten the concern about being a political hack,” Hubbard says. So far, no potential nominees have emerged for that post. “We’re all very interested to see what sort of person the administration needs to support Bridenstine,” says Logsdon.