On Wednesday, senator Bill Nelson leveled a broad attack: You are unqualified, too divisive, and too extreme, with a history of questioning climate science, advocating discrimination against LGBT Americans, and personally attacking people like former president Barack Obama and senator John McCain.
He wasn’t talking about president Donald Trump. Nelson was talking about Donald Trump’s choice to lead NASA, representative Jim Bridenstine, a still-boyish 42 year-old with a passion for aerospace.
A former Naval aviator elected in 2012 to represent Oklahoma in Congress, Bridenstine made his name as a zealous advocate of conservative policies. He dove into debates over immigration, climate change, and national security, and joined the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative Republicans who battle not just Democrats but any Republican leader seeking bipartisan middle ground.
NASA, on the other hand, is among the most non-partisan agencies in the US government. It is traditionally backed by both parties and run by non-politicians; the typical administrator has been an experienced engineer, a former astronaut, or civil servant with experience managing huge budgets. Now, the agency may have a very 2017 culture-clash brewing.
Bridenstine used today’s Senate nomination hearing to recast or downplay his more controversial views. “I’ve been involved in a number of very difficult issues and represented my constituents the best I absolutely could,” he said of his time in the House. “It is very different representing the first district of Oklahoma than from being NASA administrator.”
Yet, with only limited management and technical experience compared to his predecessors, Bridenstine’s main advantage should be his congressional experience. In theory it will give him the savvy to address NASA’s biggest problem: Ensuring lawmakers give it the funding to match its missions, or missions that match its funding. In practice, that may be difficult for a man who less than a year ago explained that he voted to shut down the government in order to reject “the Washington Machine and the Washington Cartel, the lobbyists, the special interest groups, the political action committees and even the party apparatus” who control the budget process.
Bridenstine’s Republican defenders argue that bringing up his past political statements is, according to Colorado senator Cory Gardner, “wildly inappropriate” during a discussion of a non-partisan agency’s leadership. Setting aside campaign rhetoric, there are two key issues that do matter greatly to his potential management of the space agency.
One is climate science. NASA’s satellites are among the biggest providers of data to researchers studying climate change. Bridenstine has supported legislation that would cut funding for those programs. At his hearing, Bridenstine said he believes humans play a role in climate change, and that he would protect climate research and let science drive decision-making. He didn’t explain how his opinion had evolved, and under probing questions from Hawaii senator Brian Schatz, declined to say how important the human role is. NASA’s own positionis more precise: It cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to conclude there is a “95% probability that human activities over the past 50 years have warmed our planet.”
The other major criticism concerned his relationship with NASA’s 18,000 employees. Bridenstine defended Trump after his “grab ’em by the pussy” description of sexual assault became public in 2016, and has called homosexuality immoral. At the hearing, several senators asked him if could be trusted to protect NASA’s female and LGBT employees. Each time, Bridenstine declined to reply to specific concerns over his views on women and the LGBT community, instead offering a variation on the observation that “that every human being has value and every person has worth.” That may not allay concerns among the space agency’s workers but will likely serve the purpose of winning confirmation.
Indeed, Bridenstine is expected to be confirmed, if only because Republicans still control the senate. But he has also won over many in the space industry. In Congress, he was an enthusiastic backer of the new generation of commercial space companies like SpaceX, and their hopes of turning low-earth orbit into a venue for profit. He has also pledged to support NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft, which matters because of the political clout of the contractors behind the project, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Space organizations that have endorsed him, like the Mars Society, believe he will bring a shot of needed energy to NASA.
The Oklahoman’s backers say his controversial past doesn’t outweigh the benefits of fresh thinking at a time when Trump is shifting the US toward an ambitious return to the moon and highlighting the importance of space to national security. Yet if he wins his confirmation on party lines, it may undermine his authority to make change from the get-go.