Ground Control to Major Don: Your NASA pick doesn’t have the right stuff
For the past 421 days, NASA has been without a permanent administrator — longer than any other period in the agency’s history, longer even than any spaceflight any of its astronauts have taken.
President Donald J. Trump’s nominee has little chance of getting off the ground, and it’s time the White House dumps him for a more qualified candidate.
The president’s choice, Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, has spent the past four months in the black hole between the Senate Commerce Committee and a full chamber vote — even though he can be confirmed without a single Democrat’s approval. By now one thing is clear: If a Republican nominee from a Republican president can’t get through a Republican Senate, it’s time to pick somebody else.
The Chronicle’s Alex Stuckey reported this week that Robert Lightfoot, the understandably weary interim administrator, announced he’ll step down on April 30, leaving Congress and the White House just a few weeks to find a suitable candidate. We have confidence that they can.
NASA needs an ambitious leader who can articulate the agency’s mission, hone Trump’s vision for space exploration, inspire the public to support NASA and boost the morale of the career staff jittery about the space agency’s identity since the cancellation of the shuttle and Constellation programs during the Obama administration. But all the agency has right now is an interim leader with one foot out the door and a nominee who has fizzled on the launch pad.
Choosing a NASA administrator has never before been a partisan struggle. Even in a time of increasing polarization, the picks of presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush were confirmed unanimously. Many of the dozen men who have led NASA to date have been scientists or military veterans, and surely the Trump administration could find a candidate with a similar pedigree.
Despite serving as a pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve and member of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology, Bridenstine lacks any science or engineering degrees. He would also be the first politician to hold the post, a prospect that rankled some senators, given NASA’s apolitical mission.
What doomed Bridenstine’s chances of attracting any Democratic support was his past outspokenness on climate change, including his incorrect assertion in a 2013 floor speech that global temperatures stopped increasing a decade prior.
During his NASA administrator confirmation hearing this past fall, Bridenstine said he acknowledges climate change is real and humans play a role in it. But he stopped short of adopting the scientific consensus that humans are almost certainly the primary driver behind climate change, even though NASA itself pegs that likelihood at greater than 95 percent.
After watching several appointees with dubious credentials win confirmation to lead federal agencies — a brain surgeon to lead the housing department, a wealthy donor with no public school experience to lead the education department — Democrats are unwilling to give Bridenstine the benefit of the doubt.
Yet it is ultimately Republicans who have stalled Bridenstine’s nomination. Florida’s Marco Rubio has been the most vocal, saying last fall he could not commit to voting for Bridenstine because he worried a politician leading NASA “could be devastating for the space agency.”
Cynics were quick to point out that Bridenstine also happened to appear in 2016 campaign ads for Sen. Ted Cruz in which he attacked Rubio. Whether Rubio is truly looking out for his state’s Kennedy Space Center or merely settling a petty score doesn’t really matter. The result is the same: a nominee with no chance of getting the gig.
Even in this era of hyper-partisanship, there are many candidates the White House can choose who would win the support of Republicans and Democrats. Trump should name one quickly, because without adequate leadership, NASA’s ambitions will get lost in space.