The Bridenstine Era Begins

The Bridenstine Era Begins

Former Congressman Jim Bridenstine took the oath of office today becoming NASA’s 13th Administrator.  Vice President Mike Pence presided over the ceremony at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC bringing greetings from President Trump, “a great champion … of the  pioneering work of NASA” and who is committed to ensuring America remains preeminent in space.  

Bridenstine’s letter to the Governor of Oklahoma resigning his seat from the U.S. House of Representatives, effective at 10:30 am ET this morning, was read on the floor of the House today during a pro forma session.  With his departure, six House seats now are vacant.

At approximately 2:50 pm ET, accompanied by his wife and three children, Bridenstine was sworn into office as NASA Administrator, taking charge of the 18,000 employee agency with 10 field centers across the country and a $20 billion a year budget.

Vice President Mike Pence administers the oath of office to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine with Bridenstine’s wife, Michelle, and children (Walker, Grant, and Sarah) looking on. April 23, 2018. Credit:  NASA/Bill Ingalls.

Bridenstine succeeds Charlie Bolden, who left at the end of the Obama Administration, and Robert Lightfoot, who has been Acting Administrator for the 15 months since.  Lightfoot is retiring from NASA at the end of the month after nearly 30 years at the agency.  His service to NASA and the country were recognized with warm applause.

Bridenstine takes the helm of NASA at an interesting time.  While he promised to “do my best to serve our storied agency … as we reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind,” NASA’s role is evolving as it approaches its 60th birthday on October 1.  Entrepreneurial space companies are challenging the traditional role that NASA has been playing since the beginning of the Space Age.  Bridenstine championed commercial space efforts as a Member of Congress and some wonder if he will lead a ground shift away from NASA’s iconic place in the fabric of America’s national identity, replaced by corporate logos.

Jim Bridenstine, NASA Admnistrator, speaking after taking the oath of office, Apr 23 2018. Screengrab

If so, there was no sign of it today in Bridenstine’s brief speech.  He hit all the right notes about NASA’s past, present and future.  “NASA represents what is best about the United States of America. We lead, we discover, we pioneer, and we inspire.  I look forward to our journey together.”

Pence also praised NASA during the ceremony, assuring NASA employees that in President Trump “you have an advocate, and an ally.” At a later meeting with senior NASA officials, however, Pence spoke about the growing role of the commercial sector in space.  Trump “wants us to look in new, and renewed, and fresh ways, about American leadership in space” and “to clear the way …. for more capital investment, more private investment, and more innovation from our burgeoning commercial sector.”

Trump’s vision is “that the United States will retain and expand our rightful role as the premier space-faring nation.”  That means sending humans back to the Moon; building the capacity, with international and commercial partners, to send astronauts to Mars; reducing regulations; “encouraging pioneering companies to grow in and beyond low Earth orbit,” and developing space technology “that protects our national security.”

After solving some technical problems, Pence and Bridenstine spoke live with NASA’s three astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS):  Drew Feustel, Scott Tingle and Ricky Arnold.   Pence asked each of them how they see the ISS contributing to the future of human spaceflight.

Tingle used his few seconds to highlight the scientific research they are conducting, especially on radiation effects, which is critical to long duration spaceflight, while Feustel and Arnold took a much broader view.

Arnold focused on the ISS as “a beacon of hope of what humans can accomplish when they put aside their differences” and work together.  “The work and trust we’re building with one other” is  “laying the foundation for a robust human presence in the solar system.”  ISS is “showing what we are capable of as a species.”

Feustel spoke about the need to monitor Earth from space.  “It is important as a species that we develop the capability to live off the planet because we  know there are challenges on Earth and we know single planet species don’t last forever.” Threats to Earth make it imperative to become a multiplanet species, he said, and that includes knowing “what’s happening to the Earth and this is a great platform to do that.”

Those comments are particularly interesting because one criticism of Bridenstine’s nomination was that he might stifle Earth science research at NASA.  Until his confirmation hearing, he was a climate change skeptic, though at that hearing he modified his position to agree that climate change is human induced. He would not go as far as to agree that humans are the primary cause of climate change, however.  Many in the Earth science community remain concerned about what he will do with NASA’s Earth science programs.  In the FY2019 budget request, the Trump Administration is again proposing that four Earth science missions be terminated after Congress rejected that proposal for FY2018.

(L-R) Presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, Sen Ted Cruz (R-TX), and NASA CFO Jeffrey DeWit at Bridenstine swearing-in ceremony, Apr 23, 2018. Screengrab

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway, and new NASA Chief Financial Officer Jeffrey DeWit were in the audience at the ceremony.  Pence noted that he swore DeWit into office just before the Bridenstine ceremony.  DeWit actually started work three weeks ago and would have been officially sworn in at that point.  It is not uncommon to have both an official and a ceremonial swearing-in.  DeWit was the COO and CFO of the 2016 Trump campaign and Treasurer of the State of Arizona.

Videos of the ceremony are on NASA’s YouTube channel.

Trump has not yet nominated a Deputy Administrator for NASA.




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