Wed. Nov 30th, 2022
Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing on Nov. 1, 2017.
Enlarge / Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine speaks at his Senate confirmation hearing on Nov. 1, 2017.

NASA

Four-time astronaut Charles Bolden resigned as NASA administrator on January 20, 2017, leaving the space agency after more than seven years of service. Since then, a former director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, Robert Lightfoot, has served as interim director. He has now held this position for 315 days, or nearly 11 months.

NASA has never been without a formal administrator for so long, according to an analysis of the gaps between directors at the space agency. Beginning with T. Keith Glennan in 1958 and continuing six decades later through Charles Bolden’s term, there have been ten transitions between NASA administrators. The average difference between drivers is 3.7 months.

There are two past analogies for the current situation, when an executive of the president of one political party resigned on the day a new president of the other party took office. This happened in 1981, when Robert Frosch resigned following the departure of President Carter, and again in 2009, when Michael Griffin resigned following the departure of George W. Bush. In each case, the gap between the resignation and Senate approval of a new administrator was less than six months, 170 and 176 days, respectively.

Bridenstine

The Trump administration nominated pilot and Congressman Jim Bridenstine to be NASA administrator three months ago, so it doesn’t deserve all the blame for a lack of formal leadership at the space agency. Congress finally held a confirmation hearing for Bridenstine on November 1, during which he faced strong criticism from Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla.).

“Your recent career in public service doesn’t inspire much confidence in your leadership skills or your ability to bring people together,” said Nelson, who argued that a political figure should not lead an apolitical agency like NASA. “In fact, your record and your conduct in Congress is as divided and extreme as it is in Washington.”

(This “too political” criticism raised some eyebrows in the aerospace community, as Nelson used his political position as a U.S. representative to ride aboard the space shuttle for a six-day mission in 1986. As a lawyer, he had no special skills relevant to the mission, which had the primary objective of deploying a communications satellite.)

While it is true that Bridenstine has strong political views, he also has experience as a fighter pilot and was one of the most active members on space issues during his tenure in Congress. Opponents have also questioned Bridenstine’s views on climate change, including past doubts about humanity’s effect on a warming world. At his confirmation hearing, Bridenstine said he believes humans contribute to climate change.

In recent weeks, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has emerged as a key figure in the Senate on Bridenstine, after also expressing reservations about his nomination. However, there remains a general expectation that Bridenstine will be approved later this month along a mostly party line.

Need for leadership

While Lightfoot has received praise for its steady hand at NASA this year, several people told Ars that having a formal trustee is important to moving the agency’s mission forward. As the new National Space Council deliberates on the future of NASA, the agency needs someone to speak for its employees and their capabilities.

“The risk is that NASA will be left out of the mix for budget increases and major White House initiatives,” said Lori Garver, who served as deputy administrator at NASA from 2009 to 2013. “Early political leadership at an agency like NASA is critical to shaping priorities and budgets throughout the president’s term.”

For example, after Bolden and Garver were confirmed in July 2009, NASA leadership had already set up a committee headed by former Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine to consider the agency’s future. It also began to make major shifts in the 2011 budget.

Phil Larson, a figure in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy at the time, said NASA needs direction as it faces critical questions about its future exploration plans. “Think about what decisions could have been made with a leader in the past year,” he said, “and what the benefit of those decisions would be.”

Since Bolden’s departure, NASA has struggled to find a destination for its human exploration program. The agency has begun to emphasize a “Journey to Mars” as the Trump administration has said it prefers to send humans to the moon first. Major decisions need to be made about how to get people and materials to the moon, how much to involve in the nascent commercial space program, and how to pay for it all.

In the meantime, some of the leadership gap could be filled by the space council, led by Vice President Mike Pence. “It’s far from optimal and not what the vice president wants to do, but he could give Mars orders to NASA,” said John Logsdon, a noted space historian. “Robert Lightfoot is perfectly capable of implementing them. But that’s not really the job of the Space Council. The Senate has a candidate for it. He needs to be voted up or down so NASA can have a leader linked to the current government.

By akfire1

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