Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), President Donald Trump’s nominee to be NASA administrator, pledged Nov. 1 to be a nonpartisan leader of the space agency despite concerns among Senate Democrats about putting a politician in the job.
“We need a consensus agenda,” Bridenstine testified at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “I want to make sure that NASA remains … apolitical, and I will do that to the utmost of my ability should I be confirmed.”
Bridenstine said he understands that the role of a congressman differs dramatically from that of a NASA administrator and that he has worked with Democrats on space-related issues, such as weather forecasting legislation. He noted that James Webb was a congressional aide before he led NASA’s push into human space flight in the 1960s.
Webb “certainly did great work on behalf of this country coming from a political environment,” Bridenstine told senators. “I am not comparing myself to James Webb, but I will say that I think it can be done and I don’t think serving in Congress is disqualifying.”
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the committee’s ranking member, called himself “quite skeptical” about the nominee, saying the conservative Republican has a history of making “divisive and extreme” comments about Democrats, moderate Republicans and others.
“NASA needs a leader who will unite us, not divide us,” Nelson said. “Respectfully, Congressman Bridenstine, I think you’ve got a long way to go to prove to be that leader.”
Democrats also expressed concern about Bridenstine’s lack of experience in managing a large organization and his skepticism about the role of human activity in causing climate change. Bridenstine said he would not punish NASA scientists if they spoke publicly about their climate-change work.
Committee Republicans defended the nominee. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Bridenstine’s congressional knowledge would be an asset, as it would help him gain passage of appropriations and authorization legislation.
“I think it’s a positive, particularly when you’re trying to get the attention of Congress to support NASA, to have been a member of Congress,” Inhofe said.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) predicted that Bridenstine will be confirmed but said it will be “deeply unfortunate” for NASA and the space community if the vote falls along party lines.
“This committee has managed to avoid some of the partisan wrangling that other committees get drawn into,” Cruz said. “I believe the bipartisan cooperation we have had has been integral to space, and I hope it continues.”
Turning to policy matters, Bridenstine said he supports the administration’s plan to return humans to the Moon and use the lunar destination as a “proving ground” for sending astronauts to Mars. He endorsed NASA research on hypersonics, X-planes and integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace.
Bridenstine, a Navy aviation veteran who sits on the House Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology committees, also called for shifting some of the Air Force’s space debris-tracking responsibilities to a civilian agency that has international support.
“The Air Force is providing space situational awareness to the entire world for absolutely free, and that includes our foreign partners but also countries that are sometimes not friendly to the United States,” he testified. “It’s not the job of the American taxpayer to protect the assets of countries that are often hostile to the United States.”