NASA Heads Back to Space Leaderless
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the storied agency that put humans on the moon in 1969, is adrift on Earth in 2018.
In its second year without a permanent leader, NASA is trying to pivot back toward human spaceflight for the first time since the space shuttle program ended in 2011. Simultaneously, it faces critical decisions about how to end America’s role in the International Space Station. And there’s that issue of commercial space billionaires putting it out of business entirely.
The Trump administration has twice nominated Representative Jim Bridenstine, 42, an Oklahoma Republican, to the post of NASA administrator. And twice, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee voted along party lines to send his nomination to the full Senate. And there it has languished.
Robert Lightfoot Jr., a 29-year agency veteran, has served as acting administrator since January 2017, the longest period the agency has spent under an interim leader. “Records are sometimes good,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a trade group. “But not this time.”
Bridenstine has been blocked by all 49 Senate Democrats. Florida’s Congressional delegation enjoys an outsized influence on NASA because of Cape Canaveral, and Senator Bill Nelson, who flew on the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, isn’t a Bridenstine fan. His colleague Marco Rubio, the junior senator for the Sunshine State and a Republican, doesn’t want Bridenstine, either. With fellow Republican John McCain of Arizona absent for cancer treatment, that leaves confirmation 50-49 against.
“I’m looking forward to a quick confirmation process,” Lightfoot said in a statement to NASA staff back in January. NASA officials declined further comment.
Beyond Lightfoot, the lack of movement on Capitol Hill effectively leaves NASA leadership to Scott Pace, executive director of the National Space Council, which Trump revived last summer. The council has taken a direct role in overseeing NASA’s priorities, including the administration’s 2017 directive to return astronauts to the moon, but doesn’t have the same hands-on role an administrator would. Bridenstine has attended both National Space Council meetings, in October and last month, but only as an observer.
Rubio has argued that the NASA post shouldn’t be occupied by a politician, particularly one with stridently partisan positions. “It’s the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics, and it’s at a critical juncture in its history,” he told Politico in September.
Bridenstine, a member of the highly conservative House Freedom Caucus, has drawn Democratic opposition for his views on gay marriage and abortion rights, as well as past statements dismissing climate change. And he may have rubbed Republican Rubio, and possibly McCain, the wrong way on account of his past support for their primary opponents.
In the 2016 presidential primaries, Bridenstine, a former Navy fighter pilot with an interest in space issues, produced several advertisements supporting Texas Senator Ted Cruz in his failed quest for the Republican nomination. Those ads criticized Rubio, also a candidate, for his position on immigration and attacks on Cruz. Rubio has reportedly denied a connection between Bridenstine’s past barbs and his opposition to the NASA nomination. Bridenstine also supported McCain’s Republican rival, Kelli Ward, in a fierce 2016 primary campaign that McCain eventually won.
Bridenstine declined to comment on the confirmation process. McCain, Rubio and their spokespeople didn’t return calls or an email seeking comment.
NASA observers, including some Democrats with ties to the agency, contend that Bridenstine’s political background would be beneficial to a NASA administrator, who must navigate the shoals between the White House and Congress, which appropriates the agency’s budget.
NASA is enmeshed in refocusing its efforts on human spaceflight, given Trump’s call for a return to the moon as a stepping stone to Mars. Simultaneously, the president has proposed to end U.S. support for the International Space Station by 2025, while investing $150 million in private development of commercial space technology. Ending NASA’s role at the station has stirred bipartisan consternation in Congress.
“I’m still fairly bullish on what Jim Bridenstine would do for the agency,” said Phil Larson, a former senior adviser in President Barack Obama’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. “The main point now is NASA needs a leader as soon as possible, and leaving a nominee in question—I don’t care what side of the aisle you’re on—leaving a nomination open as these types of policies and questions and meetings are being hashed out helps no one.”
On Saturday, Japan will host the second International Space Exploration Forum, a high-level gathering of space officials from around the world, including NASA’s Lightfoot. The first event took place four years ago in Washington, encompassing 35 nations, and led to the Obama administration’s decision to extend the ISS’s operational life to 2024.
“Opportunities are being missed each day. Acting administrators, unfortunately, can do only so much,” said Larson, the assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. “It helps no one to have a post like that in limbo.”
The Bridenstine fight shows that Congress has become “totally dysfunctional,” even for qualified candidates, said former NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe, who led the agency for three years under Republican President George W. Bush. The administrator must function effectively with the White House, O’Keefe said, “and the notion that somebody who’s an elected politician can’t function in that regard and be objective about that, I don’t understand that.”
For some NASA veterans, the agency’s plans to return astronauts to space via the commercial crew program presents an important milestone, one that should be presided over by permanent leadership—especially in case something goes wrong. Under current plans, Boeing Co. will fly two NASA astronauts into orbit in November, followed by a similarly crewed flight by Elon Musk’s SpaceX the following month.
The crew program has carried enormous urgency for both the Obama and Trump administrations, as Washington is keen to stop paying Russia for transport to and from the station. Yet, when humans strap themselves onto rockets, the risks aren’t small. Potential catastrophe is one reason Obama rushed to fill the NASA post at the start of his first term, given the frequency of space shuttle flights, said Lori Garver, who was NASA’s deputy director under Obama and oversaw the search for NASA administrator candidates.
Obama was “very particular” about not wanting an interim administrator leading the agency for long, she said. “The idea was that if you lost a space shuttle, and you hadn’t put someone in as the head of NASA, you would be accused of not having a focus on it,” Garver said, with the goal being to avoid accusations “of a rudderless agency not paying attention and allowing that to happen.”
The Trump White House doesn’t view the NASA post in the same political terms, she said. “This is just not in their calculation,” Garver said. “They got other problems.”