Bridenstine Wins Shelby’s Endorsement, Identifies Key NASA Challenges

Bridenstine Wins Shelby’s Endorsement, Identifies Key NASA Challenges

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) endorsed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be the next Administrator of NASA today. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, making his support quite significant. Bridenstine also has submitted answers to questions posed by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in preparation for his nomination hearing.  They lay out what he sees as the key challenges facing the agency.

President Trump nominated Bridenstine on September 2.  Initial reaction was mixed, with Florida’s two Senators, Bill Nelson (D) and Marco Rubio (R), expressing reservations because Bridenstine is a politician and they believe NASA should be free of politics.

Another concern is that Bridenstine is too pro-commercial space, preferring that the private sector, not NASA, develop new rockets, for example.   A case in point is the Space Launch System (SLS).  By direction of Congress, NASA is currently developing SLS, but some commercial space advocates complain that companies like SpaceX are developing their own rockets that are sufficiently capable to meet America’s space exploration needs and SLS is unnecessary.

SLS is managed at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) in Shelby’s home state of Alabama.  Not surprisingly, he is a strong advocate for SLS and other Alabama-based space activities.

Whether or not Shelby would support Bridenstine therefore has been an open question.  He answered it today by tweet:

Remarks by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK)  extract from Congres-sional Record, June 11, 2013, p. H3262.

Bridenstine also has been criticized  for his views on climate change based largely on a statement he made on the floor of the House in 2013 asking that President Obama apologize to the people of Oklahoma for spending more money on climate change research than weather forecasting and warning.  “Global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago,” he said, which is incorrect.  While temperatures have fluctuated over the centuries, he argued, that is due to natural forces, not humans.

In a June 2016 interview with Aerospace America (the complete transcript of which was posted online by the magazine in September 2017) he repeated that the climate has been changing for centuries and he is not convinced humans are the determining factor, but also said he supports climate change research to get the answers.  “That’s why we need to continue studying it. Again, I am not opposed to studying it.”

In the last Congress, Bridenstine chaired the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, which has oversight of NOAA.  He drove passage of legislation that established a commercial weather data pilot program at NOAA to assess whether commercial weather data can be infused into NOAA’s weather models (and, separately, a parallel effort at DOD).  While he has expressed concerns about NOAA’s weather satellites as “Battlestar Gallacticas” that are vulnerable to a range of threats, he also makes clear that he does not see commercial systems supplanting government satellites, but as augmentations. His repeated refrain is that his goal is zero deaths from tornadoes in Oklahoma, which means better forecasting.

More broadly, Bridenstine made his mark in space circles through introduction in the last Congress of the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA), which he referred to as a repository of provisions that could be inserted into various pieces of legislation as appropriate.  They dealt with a broad range of civil, commercial, and national security space issues.  Among them was his advocacy for expanding the role of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to include regulatory responsibility for non-traditional space activities like asteroid mining.  He modified his views this year, however, joining with Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX) in introducing legislation that assigns that role to the Department of Commerce instead.

As for NASA, ASRA included provisions that would establish humans on Mars as NASA’s primary human spaceflight priority, direct NASA to be first to arrive at space destinations, establish a 5-year term for the NASA Administrator and a congressionally-selected 21-member commission to provide a list of potential administrator candidates and provide Congress with an analysis of NASA’s annual proposed budgets, and several more.

A pilot in the Navy, the Naval Reserve, and currently the Oklahoma Air National Guard, Bridenstine was director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium from 2008-2010.  He was first elected to Congress in 2012.  He has a B.A. from Rice University and an MBA from Cornell.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK)

In response to a questionnaire required by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee prior to his nomination hearing, Bridenstine listed the top three challenges he sees for NASA:

  • “maintaining consistency and constancy of purpose while establishing a consensus agenda that can bridge multiple administrations….”
  • “maintaining and building international partnerships while ending dependencies on unfriendly nations…”
  • “bringing together traditional space companies and new space entrepreneurs into a comprehensive NASA vision…”

Rumors are that Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing could happen next week, although the Senate’s schedule is quite uncertain at the moment and the committee has not announced its hearing schedule.

The hearing would be before the Senate Commerce Committee’s Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee, which is chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX). The top Democrat (“ranking member”) is Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).  Sen. John Thune (R-SD) chairs the full committee and the ranking member is Bill Nelson.

Cruz, Nelson, and Rubio, three of the Senators most interested in the nomination, are dealing the impacts of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in their home states, making the schedule even more uncertain.

Though Nelson and Rubio have expressed concern about Bridenstine’s nomination, it has support from Cruz, Shelby, other politicians and industry groups including Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee; Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), a member of the committee; the Commercial Spaceflight Federation; the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; and the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

During a panel discussion on the space program hosted by Politico last week, John Logsdon, founder of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and now a professor emeritus, expressed what seems to be the view of many in the space policy community:  “he’s a perfectly reasonable choice… I think he deserves a chance.”



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