Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, praised the pick as a leader who can "reclaim our rightful place in the stars," but others questioned the nominee's qualifications.

Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, praised the pick as a leader who can "reclaim our rightful place in the stars," but others questioned the nominee's qualifications. Rick Bowmer/AP

Senate Confirms Trump’s Pick to Lead NASA on Party-Line Vote

Bridenstine hailed by Republicans as patriot, slammed by Democrats as unqualified.

The Senate on Thursday voted to confirm former House member and museum executive James Bridenstine to be the next NASA administrator. The vote on President Trump’s controversial choice, who cleared committee along party lines in January, was 50-49.

Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma elected to the House in 2012, served on the Science, Space and Technology Committee. A retired Navy pilot who flew the E-2C Hawkeye and the F-18 Hornet, he was executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium before he ran for Congress.

He takes the helm of NASA after Trump in January relaunched the National Space Council and vowed to continue an effort to send humans to the moon and, eventually, Mars.

Bridenstine represents “a new generation of leaders who can restore” the era of U.S. space dominance and help the United States “reclaim our rightful place in the stars,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. He praised the nominee’s “remarkable record of service and genuine faith in his country as boundless as the heavens.”

Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said Bridenstine has the “government, commercial and management experience, and yes, industry experience,” calling for an end to the “blind partisanship” that drives too many votes in the Senate.

The nominee’s home-state Republican senator James Lankford said before the vote, “Jim will serve our nation well in this role, just as he did as a Navy pilot and a U.S. representative specializing in satellite innovation.”

But Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a former astronaut, recalled the tragic deadly accidents of space shuttles Challenger and Columbia, which occurred, he said, when “well intentioned” NASA managers ignored the safety warnings of engineers. “Traditionally the NASA leaders were well qualified, and were not controversial,” Nelson added. “NASA is one of the few remaining areas there we avoid the partisanship that has invaded so many areas of our society.”

Calling Bridenstine’s Senate hearing “one of the most contentious I have ever been a part of,” Nelson said the NASA administrator should have an ability to “bring together scientists, engineers, policymakers and the public.” The chief “should be a consummate space professional, not a politician.”

The day before the Senate vote, the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight released reporting alleging that Bridenstine, before he was allegedly eased out from the tax-exempt Tulsa museum, took on $308,000 in debt. “Much of that debt was brought on from a rocket racing air show, for which the museum paid at least $372,000—to a company simultaneously owned by Bridenstine,” the reporters wrote. Bridenstine denied that he left the museum under a cloud.