President Trump plans to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a leading space advocate in Congress, to be NASA’s 13th administrator, the White House announced late Sept. 1.
Analysts said that Bridenstine’s selection could be a boost for commercial space and returning astronauts to the moon, both of which he has advocated in the House.
“While in Congress, Bridenstine has promoted small satellites, lightweight launch vehicles, and government purchasing of commercial data and services,” said Bill Ostrove, an aerospace/defense analyst at Forecast International. “He has also promoted lunar exploration, something that was ignored during the Obama administration in favor of asteroid and Mars exploration.”
Capitol Hill reaction to the nomination was mixed. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s space panel, welcomed the announcement, calling Bridenstine “a strong, principled and effective leader” who has been a “close ally” in the House.
“I am confident that as the next NASA administrator, Jim will work hard to advance our national space policy goals, expand human space exploration and secure America’s leadership in space,” Cruz said.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), chairman of the full Commerce Committee, also expects to support Bridenstine, a Thune spokesman said.
But Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the Commerce Committee’s top Democrat, questioned whether a member of Congress should lead the agency.
"The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson said.
Bridenstine has served in the House since 2013 and is a member of its Armed Services and Science, Space and Technology committees. A Navy veteran, he has flown the F/A-18 Hornet fighter and the E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft. He is the former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.
Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator since 2012, has been serving as acting administrator since January. Asked whether Lightfoot will remain associate administrator if Bridenstine is confirmed by the Senate, a NASA spokeswoman replied, “I believe those discussions would be for a later date. I do not know Mr. Lightfoot's plans.”
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, expressed hope that Lightfoot stays on so that NASA continues to benefit from his management experience.
Bridenstine has “never managed a large organization,” Logsdon said. “Lightfoot, before being acting administrator, was basically the chief operating officer for NASA” and received high marks for his performance.