We've had to wait a long time, but the Trump Administration has finally made its pick for the next person to lead NASA.
In a statement yesterday, it was revealed that Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine, the Representative for Oklahoma, would be Trump's nomination for NASA Administrator.
Bridenstine will need to be approved by the Senate before he can fill the position. A Deputy Administrator has not yet been named, but various outlets had suggested it would be John Schumacher from Aerojet Rocketdyne, who is a former NASA chief of staff. He has since reportedly removed himself from consideration, due to family health issues.
“I am pleased to have Rep. Bridenstine nominated to lead our team,” NASA's Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who has run the agency since Trump took office, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with a new leadership team, and the administration, on NASA’s ongoing mission of exploration and discovery.”
So, who is Jim Bridenstine? Well, he has been elected twice to the US House of Representatives, in 2012 and 2016. He has been active on space issues in Congress, serving on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. He reportedly put his name forward for the job in February.
He will succeed Charlie Bolden, who was Obama's pick for Administrator during his two terms in office. Obama had already nominated Bolden by May of his first year; it's taken Trump until September.
His nomination has immediately drawn criticism, however. Florida Senators Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, Republican and Democrat respectively, both said they were concerned about a politician leading NASA. Others have cited his lack of experience as a problem.
“The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” Nelson told Politico. “I just think it could be devastating for the space program,” added Rubio.
Their concerns seem to stem around issues of partisanship and political arguments slowing NASA's progress. For example, Bridenstine has made some alarming statements about climate change in the past, namely that global temperature changes were due to the Sun's output and ocean cycles rather than human activity. Later comments, though, suggest he may not be a denier of human-caused global warming.
It's worth noting that one of NASA's arguably most successful administrators of all time, James Webb, was very much a man of politics and not space. Webb was responsible for fighting NASA's corner in the 1960s and was largely responsible for the success of the Apollo missions. NASA even named their upcoming successor to the Hubble telescope after him, the James Webb Space Telescope.
As for Bridenstine, he does have a keen interest in space. In particular, he is interested in monitoring weather from space, something relevant to Oklahoma as it is hit by frequent tornadoes. He's also in favor of the commercialization of space, which has been taking place rapidly over the last few years.
Measures put in place by Bolden and the Obama Administration have helped commercialization ramp up. Next year will see the inaugural launch of two private spacecraft developed with NASA's help, SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 Starliner. Bridenstine seems like a decent pick to continue that progress.
And he's also in favor of NASA's upcoming Space Launch System rocket and the Orion spacecraft, both of which are ticking along well enough. Orion has flown once already in 2014. The SLS, meanwhile, is expected to fly for the first time in 2019 with Orion on top – while Trump is still (probably) President.
Perhaps the biggest shift between Bridenstine and his predecessor is his preference for going back to the Moon, rather than sending humans to Mars. For almost the last decade NASA has been focused on getting humans to Mars by the 2030s, with the Moon seen as a stopping point rather than a desirable area of exploration.
Bridenstine, on the other hand, seems to favor going back to the Moon first. He sees it as a key ground for both government and private exploration, and in particular seems to favor studying the Moon's icy poles. However, he doesn't seem to think a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s is feasible.
“Water ice on the Moon could be used to refuel satellites in orbit,” he said in a blog post in December 2016. “The Moon, with its three-day emergency journey back to Earth, represents the best place to learn, train, and develop the necessary technologies and techniques for in situ resource utilization and an eventual long term human presence on Mars.”
Quite what NASA under Bridenstine will look like remains to be seen. In our interview with Bolden back in December 2015, he said giving up on Mars would be “disastrous”. He, and the rest of the world, will surely be watching with bated breath to see what the fate of his legacy will be.