NASA file photo

One Year Later, NASA Still Doesn't Have a New Administrator

An interim director is steering the ship, but the delay between administrations is unprecedented.

On Saturday afternoon, NASA will mark an anniversary with little cause for celebration: One year since the Trump administration took office, the space agency still doesn’t have an administrator.

This is the longest NASA has gone without a permanent chief—who is nominated by the president and must be confirmed by Congress—in the transition between two administrations. Since the inauguration last January, NASA has been run by an acting administrator. While the agency historically has been toward the bottom of the priority list for presidential appointees of a new administration, this kind of delay is unprecedented. Before this, the longest stretch between administrators came in 2009, when George W. Bush’s chief stepped down in January and Barack Obama’s appointee was sworn in in July, less than six months later.

The White House put forth a nominee in September, and a congressional committee has approved him twice. No one knows when the matter will come to the Senate floor for a vote by the entire chamber, which currently has its hands full with, among other things, avoiding a government shutdown at midnight tonight.

According to the last person who held the job, it’s been too long already.

“The agency’s been doing really well, considering,” Charles Bolden said in a phone interview Thursday night. “But they need an administrator.”

Since Bolden stepped down from the top post last January, the position has been held by Robert Lightfoot, the former director of NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center in Alabama. Previous acting administrators have served longer, but they took on the job during an existing administration, when their bosses resigned early. Bolden said Lightfoot is “more than capable” of serving in the role, but the agency needs a complete roster of leadership roles. The number-two job at NASA, deputy administrator, remains unfilled. Lightfoot is “doing double duty,” Bolden said. “A lot of senior staff are doing double duty.”

The lack of a permanent leader has left NASA in a state of limbo. It’s difficult for interim leaders to advocate for the agency on long-term matters, including the budget, simply because they don’t expect to stick around for that long. “Fundamentally, an acting administrator is not empowered to make big changes at NASA,” said Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society in California. “He’s there just to keep the ship running steady.”

The Trump White House announced its nomination for NASA chief in September. The administration picked Jim Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma and former Navy combat pilot. Bridenstine studied business and economics and served as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum before he was elected to Congress in 2012. Unlike his colleagues from states like Florida, Alabama, or Maryland, which host major NASA facilities, Bridenstine has few NASA stakes to defend in his home state, but the congressman has maintained a strong interest in space policy. In 2016, he introduced legislation for reforms in several areas of the nation’s space agenda that he did not expect to pass, but hoped would spur discussions in Congress.

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a confirmation hearing for Bridenstine in November that quickly turned contentious.

Democrats, particularly Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, criticized Bridenstine over his lack of a science or space background. (Bolden was a former astronaut.) They pressed him about comments he’d made about the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage, which he said was a “disappointment,” and former president Barack Obama’s executive order instructing public schools to allow transgender students to use bathrooms of their choice, which he described as “lawless federal bullying.”

Democrats also grilled Bridenstine on his views on climate change. The congressman has said he believes humans have contributed to the shifting climate, but stopped short of saying they were the primary cause. Republicans, meanwhile, praised and defended Bridenstine from the Democrats’ line of questioning, which Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado at one point described as “a little bit disgusting.”

On the day of the latest hearing, Bridenstine announced that he would bring Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” as his guest to the State of the Union address later this month. The invitation of a popular public figure may be an attempt to appeal to members of Congress who have described Bridenstine as divisive.

When the nomination does reach the Senate floor, there’s a chance it will fail. Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.com points out that Bridenstine’s odds looked better last year, when the Senate was split between 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats. The election of Doug Jones in Alabama last fall brought the Republicans’ majority down to 51. That matters quite a bit for Bridenstine. If all Democrats vote against Bridenstine and one Republican joins them, the Senate would need to bring in Vice President Mike Pence to break the tie. If more than one Republican senator absconds to the other side, Bridenstine is in trouble. Marco Rubio of Florida has expressed doubts about him in the past, and John McCain is still home in Arizona for his cancer treatment.

If a Senate vote to confirm Bridenstine fails, the chamber could wait and then try again, or the White House could nominate another candidate. When I asked whether Trump would put forth another nominee if the Senate votes against Bridenstine, a White House spokesperson told me to reach out to NASA. Asked how the administration plans to ensure Bridenstine makes it through, the White House said the president “looks forward to Representative Bridenstine’s swift confirmation by the Senate, and is confident he will lead NASA to ensure America is a leader in space exploration once again.”

Until then, there’s not much NASA can do but wait. “There’s no ticking clock,” Dreier said. “NASA headquarters is not going to crumble. It’s just a matter of long-term leadership. The longer a large agency stays in a state of stasis, the less ability it’s going to have to react to problems it needs to address and external changing realities.”

Like many other government agencies, NASA had anticipated a different outcome on election night 2016. The agency was prepared to continue the policies established by the Obama administration, specifically the plan, however unlikely, to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. Trump has since brought the country’s space ambitions closer to home by emphasizing a return to the moon, and not just for a pit stop on the way to Mars. “It’s a 180-degree shift from no moon to moon first,” John Logsdon, a space-policy expert and former director of the Space-Policy Institute at George Washington University, told me last year.

Bridenstine has supported this shift in mission. “This is our Sputnik moment,” he wrote in a blog post in November, after his Senate hearing. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the moon is a path to being so.”

Bolden said he has “no opinion” of the candidate vying for his old job. “I’m neither a fan nor a foe,” Bolden said. “I told him I will be one of his biggest supporters if he’s confirmed, as long as he takes care of the people and sticks to the mission. So he won’t hear any complaints out of me.”

NASA has mostly escaped federal scrutiny compared to other government agencies in the last year. Last spring, the Trump administration proposed $19.1 billion in funding for the agency for the 2018 fiscal year, a nearly 3 percent decrease in funding from the year before, but overall “a very positive budget,” according to Lightfoot. Pence seems to have a larger-than-usual interest in space policy compared to other vice presidents, and has spent the last year touring NASA facilities, speaking favorably about the agency. “It’s always a good thing when you don’t get a lot of attention from the administration, as long as the budget is good,” Bolden said.

The next NASA administrator would take the reins during an exciting but stressful year for the agency. In 2018, NASA plans to launch tess, an exoplanet-hunting spacecraft; InSight, a lander destined for Mars; and the Parker Solar Probe, a mission to the sun. NASAexpects SpaceX and Boeing, its commercial partners in developing the next generation of crew-transportation systems, to start flying test missions this year, but a federal-oversight review has found the program could face major delays.

Bolden, meanwhile, said he’s enjoying his return to the private sector. The first African American to serve in the role, Bolden is, among other things, working on a children’s book about his life, from his childhood in segregated South Carolina through his years as a NASA astronaut.

I asked Bolden what advice he would give to his successor. “Take care of your people,” he said. “That’s the administrator’s job, to shield the agency from outside problems ... That’s what I sought to do. I sought to be the face and and voice of NASA so that people down in the organization can get their jobs done.”

Bolden said the next NASA chief will have to work carefully to maintain the country’s relationships with other space agencies, which require “a lot of care and feeding,” including Roscosmos, the Russian agency. Back home, he said he hopes the future administrator focuses on “making sure diversity and inclusion remain a hallmark of the agency.”

“That may be a little difficult in this administration, but it’s absolutely essential for NASA because that’s what makes them who they are,” Bolden said.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.