Oklahoma Republican representative Jim Bridenstine has been nominated to lead NASA, and the commercial space sector is lining up in support, as more information becomes available about what Bridenstine’s leadership of the agency might look like.
Bridenstine has been a vocal advocate for expanding private enterprise’s role in NASA’s space activities, and the pick seems to line up with the Trump administration’s interest in helping advance a commercial space sector. In a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Bridenstine listed “bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs into a comprehensive NASA vision to maximize resources and create efficiencies” as one of the top priorities for NASA.
The White House first announced the nomination in late September. Former head Charles Bolden, who was appointed by president Barack Obama in 2009, resigned when president Trump took office. Robert Lightfoot has stood as acting administrator for the agency in the interim — a 225-plus day stretch, marking the longest period the agency has been without a head administrator.
Bridenstine is an unusual pick for the position. If confirmed, he will be one of the few NASA leaders appointed to the position who is not a scientist. Now in his third term in office, he will also be the first elected official to be appointed to the position. Bridenstine has little experience in managing an agency, and has little professional experience in the space industry: Bridenstine is a former Navy pilot and once served as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium for two years.
But while in Congress, Bridenstine has caught the eye of Trump administration officials. And it’s easy to see why. In 2016, Bridenstine sponsored the ambitiously-titled American Space Renaissance Act, which proposed sweeping changes at NASA, including a new 20-year plan for the agency, and a push for leveraging more private space firms in NASA missions. In the bill, Bridenstine proposed amending NASA’s institutional objectives to include “an expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System, to be among those who first arrive at a destination in space, [and] to open it for subsequent use and development by others and to create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.
Bridenstine has also called for NASA to return to the Moon. Speaking at an audience at the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group last year, Bridenstine explained why he thinks returning to the Moon should be a priority for advancing US interests in space:
“From the discovery of water ice on the moon until this day, the American objective should have been a permanent outpost of rovers and machines at the poles with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance. The purpose of such an outpost should have been to utilize the materials and energy of the moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of cislunar space.”
“Space represents what is exceptional about the United States of America. We are characterized by a spirit of adventure, risk taking, and entrepreneurialism,” he said. “This exceptionalism is not genetic. It is born of a competitive, free enterprise, merit-driven culture. Today, American entrepreneurs have revolutionized access and operations in space.This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the moon is a path to being so.”
But Bridenstine’s appointment comes with some baggage. Florida representatives Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, who together represent Florida’s space coast, have publicly objected to the nomination, arguing that a politician shouldn’t lead the agency. Those concerns reflect sentiments felt in the scientific community. Some 40 scientists signed a letter earlier this month calling for the nomination to be opposed.
Scientists are particularly concerned about Bridenstine’s views on NASA’s role in studying climate change. Bridenstine has denied humans’ role in climate change, though he has a mixed record of support for NASA’s Earth observation missions that are studying climate change.
“At this critical time, we can ill afford to allow this vital agency be subject to political whims. There is too much at stake,” the letter said. “Of all of the scientific agencies worldwide, NASA does the best job of observing our planet from space. We must continue to be the leader in Earth observation systems. Cutting funding for satellites will rob us of our ability to safeguard our planet and resources.”
Still, the nomination has received support from the private space sector. Dennis Wingo, founder and CEO of Skycorp, said he thinks Bridenstine will prove to be a boon for the advancement of space interests for the US.
“Bridenstine, along with a team that he would bring in, would help to bridge the gap between ‘old space’ and ‘new space’ to bring vigor and a broader perspective and private financial support into the picture,” Wingo told The Downlink. “Behaving as if nothing has changed in the last 30 years is not viable and Brindenstine and the vice president [Mike Pence] both know this to be true.”
Wingo added that Bridenstine’s connections could help aligns interests between government agencies and the private space sector. “There is a good relationship between Vice President Pence, chair of the National Space Council, and Bridenstine, and thus the aligning of government support with commercial vigor should bring a winning formula to the table.”
The nomination has also received support from a number of space organizations. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation applauded the nomination back in September.
“I have had the privilege of working with Mr. Bridenstine since his first year in Congress and have been very impressed with his deep knowledge of space technology issues and his record of strong leadership in promoting positive change,” said Eric Stallmer, President of CSF. “His wide range of experience will provide a welcomed perspective for all space stakeholders.”
So too has the National Space Society, which called Bridenstine’s American Space Renaissance Act “a powerful tool for advancing new ideas to improve America’s position in space.”
“Some may be concerned that Representative Bridenstine is not an engineer or scientist,” said Mark Hopkins, chair of the NSS executive committee, in a statement. “We should all recall that one of the greatest NASA administrators, Jim Webb, was a lawyer. America is lucky to have Jim Bridenstine as NASA Administrator.”