If you’re keeping count, yes, it has been more than 365 days since NASA last had an Administrator. That is unprecedented, and the end is not yet in sight.
At the moment, the Trump administration is trying to push forward the nomination of Republican Jim Bridenstine. He was put forward in November and then resubmitted in January, but it's not clear when a full Senate vote will take place.
This is the longest time NASA has been without an Administrator in its 60-year history; it took just six months for Obama to have his own Administrator, Charlie Bolden, in place.
“The agency’s been doing really well, considering,” Bolden told The Atlantic. “But they need an Administrator.”
Bridenstine’s nomination has come under fire due to his dubious views on climate change in the past. He also doesn’t have a strong science background, although that was the case for Administrators James Webb (1961 to 1968) and Sean O’Keefe (2001 to 2005) too.
The news that he will be accompanied by Bill Nye at Trump’s State of the Union address today has not been too well received either, particularly with regard to Nye himself.
Robert Lightfoot has been Acting Administrator for NASA since Bolden resigned in January 2017, meaning NASA hasn’t really been able to push forward with its long-term plans yet. These include a shift from sending humans to Mars to sending them to the Moon.
We’re expecting the Trump administration to lay out some of those plans in its upcoming fiscal year 2019 budget, anticipated on February 12. Without a proper leader, however, NASA could be left at the wayside as other departments push forwards.
“The risk is that NASA is left out of the mix for budget increases and major White House cross-agency initiatives,” Lori Garver, Deputy Administrator for NASA from 2009 to 2013, told Ars Technica.
“Early political leadership at an agency like NASA is critical to shaping the priorities and budgets for the entire term of the President.”
Bolden’s approval was the previous record for NASA's longest leaderless stint, taking over from Bush Administrator Michael Griffin after 176 days (Christopher Scolese was Acting Administrator in the interim). It has now been 375 days since Bolden resigned from his position on January 20, 2017, more than double that record.
When the vote eventually does go to the Senate, Bridenstine’s nomination is anything but guaranteed. Republicans control the house 51-49, but Marco Rubio has spoken of his uncertainty about the nomination, while Republicans Thad Cochran of Mississippi and John McCain of Arizona risk missing the vote due to ill health. In the event of a tie, Vice President Mike Pence would have the deciding vote – which he’d presumably give to Bridenstine.
For now, the wait continues – and NASA remains leaderless, for the longest time in its history.