Contentious Bridenstine Nomination Hearing Splits Along Party Lines – UPDATE

Contentious Bridenstine Nomination Hearing Splits Along Party Lines – UPDATE

Today’s contentious nomination hearing for Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to be NASA Administrator was split along partisan lines.  Democratic Senators questioned his credentials and viewpoints about climate change, sexual harassment and other issues that could affect how he runs the agency and its personnel.  Republicans defended him and chafed at the tenor of the hearing.  The committee will vote on the nomination on November 8.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida)

The committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), has made no secret of his disapproval from the beginning.  Today he laid out his case that Bridenstine is not the person for the job.  Although his oral statement was slightly softer than his written statement, the bottom line is that he does not believe Bridenstine has the technical qualifications to run the agency and be the final arbiter on safety decisions regarding the three new human spacecraft that will debut in the next two years.  He also thinks that it is inappropriate for a politician to run an agency that should be apolitical.

Those are only a few of his reservations, however.  He and other Democratic Senators bored in on Bridenstine’s views about climate change; political attacks he has made on not only Democratic politicians, but Republicans as well; his appearances on radio shows and at conferences associated with hate groups; and his views on the LGBTQ community and sexual harassment.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) and NASA Administrator nominee.

Bridenstine responded to each of the questions in turn.  On issues affecting how he will manage NASA’s 18,000 civil servants, such as his views against gay marriage, he insisted that his personal views are not the point, that he will follow the law.  He repeatedly said that he believes every human being deserves respect, has worth, and is valued and everyone will be treated fairly and equally.  He said he will have a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment.

As for political attacks against others over the almost 5 years that he has been in Congress, he drew the distinction between his job representing his constituents in the first district of Oklahoma and the role he would have at NASA.  He likened the latter to his duties as a military pilot where politics is not a factor.  He was a Navy pilot for nine years and currently flies in the Oklahoma Air National Guard.  As for his association with controversial groups or individuals, he insisted that he did not know they held those points of view or were part of hate groups.

Two of the more substantive issues were his views on climate change considering that NASA spends almost $2 billion a year on earth science research and whether he has the technical qualifications to lead the agency at a time when three new vehicles — the commercial crew systems Crew Dragon and Starliner plus NASA’s own Orion — will be making their maiden flights.

In the past, Bridenstine had indicated that he did not accept the scientific consensus that the climate is changing because of human activity.  Today he said that he accepts that humans are a cause of climate change, but would not go as far as to say that it is the primary cause.  He went on to say that NASA is the only agency in the world that can do the kind of science needed to answer questions like that.

Several Republicans known to be climate change skeptics made statements pushing back against the extent to which humans affect it, but did not require Bridenstine to reply.  Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) said the operative point is that Bridenstine had “solemnly assured” the committee that he would ensure politics and his personal philosophy about climate change would not be “injected” into NASA’s scientific work.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) challenged Bridenstine on a provision of the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) that he introduced last year that, according to Schatz, would have eliminated earth science from NASA’s statutory goals.  Bridenstine insisted that was not his intent.  In response to several questions about whether he would ensure scientific integrity at NASA and that NASA earth scientists could speak freely without fear of punishment, he assured the committee that no one would be punished for expressing their views on that topic.

As for his qualifications to ensure the safety of the three new crew vehicles, Nelson asked how he would have handled a situation like the day the space shuttle Challenger was launched on January 28, 1986.  As a Member of the House of Representatives, Nelson flew on the shuttle mission immediately prior to Challenger.  Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after launch when a rubber O-ring failed in one of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters because of unusually cold temperatures at the launch site.  All seven crew members were killed.  Whether or not to launch had been controversial with differing technical points of view.  Nelson asked Bridenstine what he would do if confronted with such a situation.

Bridenstine said that while he understands that the responsibility would be his, he would rely on technical experts such as Robert Lightfoot (currently the Acting Administrator, usually the Associate Administrator) or Bill Gerstenmaier (in charge of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate) and the Independent Technical Authorities at NASA who “need to remain independent.”  Nelson suggested that he “ponder” what he would do if they disagreed with each other.

Republican Senators did not so much make the case that Bridenstine has the qualifications that Democrats found lacking, but praised him as a person.  Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) called him a hero for his military service.  Inhofe represented the first district of Oklahoma before he became Senator.  He said he knows Bridenstine better than anyone on the committee and “I believe he’s going to be the very best administrator” the country has had.

Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Cruz, one of the last Senators to speak, criticized Democrats for the tenor of the hearing: “this committee’s sorry performance… may not be surprising in the current environment, but is disappointing nonetheless.”  He said he was “proud and deeply gratified” that Trump nominated Bridenstine to be NASA Administrator and he brings “exceptional fitness” for the job.  “I believe you’re going to get confirmed, but I would say to my Democratic friends on this committee, that if the confirmation ends up going down as a party line vote, I think that would be deeply unfortunate for NASA and for the space community.”

On other issues, Bridenstine said in his opening statement or in answer to questions that —

  • NASA needs a consensus-driven agenda based on the national interest;
  • if confirmed, he will build on the work accomplished by NASA under the previous administration, and follow the NASA Transition Authorization Act, appropriations bills, and the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies;
  • he agrees with the Trump Administration’s goal of sending humans to Mars with the Moon as a proving ground;
  • he will work to promote a NASA culture where safety, transparency, and independent oversight are celebrated;
  • he wants to drive the commercial space economy further out beyond Earth;
  • he will  lead a space technology program to develop solar electric propulsion, in-space robotic assembly, and closed-loop environmental control and life support systems to form the foundation of a future expansion of economic activity in low Earth orbit and beyond;
  • he wants to leverage everything the United States and its international partners have to offer so NASA can carry out not only exploration missions back to the Moon and on to Mars, but Earth Science, Planetary Science, Heliophysics, Astrophysics and Aeronautics Research;
  • he supports the Orion program 100%; and
  • his “highest ambition is for NASA to remain apolitical.”

Bridenstine answered questions for most of the two-and-a-half hour hearing.  Three other Trump nominees were also being considered by the committee today, but they got few questions.  Among them is Neil Jacobs, nominated to be Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Environmental Observation and Prediction, a top job at NOAA.  Jacobs did not say anything about his views on NOAA’s satellite programs.

For more detail on the hearing’s give and take, check out our live tweets (@SpcPlcyOnline).

Note:  This article was updated on November 1 after the committee announced that it would mark up Bridenstine’s nomination next week, on November 8, at 9:45 am ET.  It will mark up Neil Jacobs’ nomination at the same time.  Also, an earlier version of this article incorrectly showed Sen. Cruz as being from FL in one instance.  He is from TX, as indicated elsewhere.




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