Trump’s choice for NASA chief, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, is likely to give moonshots a boost

Jim Bridenstine
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., addresses the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs in 2016. (Tom Kimmell Photo)

The White House has confirmed long-running rumors that President Donald Trump’s pick for NASA administrator is U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., an advocate for commercial spaceflight and missions to the moon.

Bridenstine would be the first member of Congress to go on to NASA’s top post, and the fact that a politician could be in charge of the space agency already has sparked controversy.

If Bridenstine follows through on his past record, that’s good news for ventures ranging from Moon Express to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. But the news might not be so good for the advocates of dramatic policy initiatives to respond to global climate change.

Word had been circulating for months that Bridenstine was Trump’s favorite for the top NASA job. A couple of weeks ago, NASA Watch reported that the selection would be announced in September.

On Friday, the White House finally confirmed that Trump would nominate Bridenstine, a 42-year-old Navy veteran who flew E-2C Hawkeye AWACS planes during combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After Bridenstine left full-time military service, he took on an assortment of aviation-related roles, serving as executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum as well as the leader of a team in the short-lived Rocket Racing League.

He was elected to the House seat that includes Tulsa in 2012. One of his claims to fame in Congress is his introduction of the American Space Renaissance Act, a package of legislation that seeks to raise the profile of space policy and leverage commercial approaches to spaceflight for national security goals.

Bridenstine championed lunar exploration and settlement last December in a blog post titled “Why the Moon Matters.” He argued that materials from the moon, particularly water ice, could be converted into rocket fuel and other resources to extend America’s influence into deep 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, with occasional manned missions for science and maintenance, in order to utilize the materials and energy of the moon to drive down the costs and increase the capabilities of American operations in cislunar and interplanetary space.”

That meshes with the views expressed by the privately funded teams pursuing the Google Lunar XPRIZE, including Moon Express. “Our goal is to expand Earth’s social and economic sphere to the moon, our largely unexplored eighth continent,” Moon Express CEO Bob Richards said in January.

It also meshes with Bezos’ view. Blue Origin already has proposed a mission architecture known as Blue Moon, which could deliver payloads to the lunar surface for NASA starting in the early 2020s.

“It’s time to go to the moon, but this time to stay,” Bezos said in May.

The House Space Subcommittee, of which Bridenstine is a member, is due to conduct a hearing on private-sector moon missions next Thursday. Richards and Blue Origin’s Brett Alexander are among the scheduled witnesses.

On the climate front, Bridenstine has favored putting more resources into weather forecasting. But global climate change? Not so much. In 2014 he falsely claimed that global mean temperatures had not risen over the past decade, and called on President Barack Obama to apologize for spending so much on climate research.

Much of the evidence documenting climate shifts has come from NASA.

Bridenstine’s selection already has drawn criticism from some in the Senate, which will vote on whether to confirm Trump’s nomination.

Politico quoted Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as saying that he and his Democratic colleague from Florida, Sen. Bill Nelson, had reservations about the choice. Rubio worried that Bridenstine’s “political baggage” could weigh him down in what’s traditionally been a nonpartisan post.

“It’s the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics, and it’s at a critical juncture in its history,” Rubio told Politico. “I would hate to see an administrator held up – on partisanship, political arguments, past votes, or statements made in the past – because the agency can’t afford it and it can’t afford the controversy.”

In a written statement sent to Politico, Nelson said “the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.”

Neither Rubio nor Nelson said they would vote against Bridenstine, however.

Since Trump took office, NASA has been headed by civil servant Robert Lightfoot in a caretaker role. In a statement, Lightfoot said he was pleased to see Bridenstine nominated and vowed to ensure a smooth transition.

“I look forward to working with a new leadership team, and the administration, on NASA’s ongoing mission of exploration and discovery,” Lightfoot said. “Our history is amazing, and our future is even brighter, as we continue to build on this nation’s incredible global leadership in human exploration, science, aeronautics and technology.”