Trump's pick for head of NASA raises brows

Commentary: Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine, who has no formal science education, is the president's choice to be NASA's new administrator.

Chris Matyszczyk
3 min read

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Trump's pick to head NASA: Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma.

Tom Williams

When it comes to space exploration, we're all on the same side. 

We're all for it, especially given Stephen Hawking's prediction that we'll need to leave Earth within 100 years.

On Friday night, however, the White House announced that the president's pick to be NASA's 13th administrator wouldn't be someone with deep space credentials and all-party support.

Instead, he's nominating Oklahoma GOP Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who's appointment needs approval by the Senate. If confirmed, he would become the first elected official to hold the position. 

An early Trump supporter, Bridenstine had reportedly lobbied Trump for the job for some time. 

He's long been interested in space and in bringing more business interests into the future of space travel. He authored the American Space Renaissance Act, which sought to bring new approaches, including a 20-year plan for NASA. It didn't pass into law, but some of its thoughts were introduced into other legislation. 

Bridenstine is also a former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium and sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee. 

But the fact that he is a politician without scientific credentials -- he studied economics, business and psychology at Rice University in Houston, Texas and has an MBA from Cornell -- has caused some to bridle, even on his own political side. 

After Florida's Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson told Politico that "the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician," the state's GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told Politico that he, too, was concerned.

"It's the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics and it's at a critical juncture in its history," Rubio told Politico. "I would hate to see an administrator held up -- on [grounds of] partisanship, political arguments, past votes, or statements made in the past -- because the agency can't afford it and it can't afford the controversy."

Some might say that the government has seemed increasingly reluctant to leave science to the scientists. 

The withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change Treaty, despite the entreaties of Elon Musk and others, was followed by the selection of Sam Clovis to be chief scientist for the Department of Agriculture. Clovis is a former conservative radio host.

The White House didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on criticism of his nomination. 

Robert Lightfoot, who is currently NASA's acting administrator, offered this statement: "I am pleased to have Rep. Bridenstine nominated to lead our team. Of course, the nomination must go through the Senate confirmation process, but I look forward to ensuring a smooth transition and sharing the great work the NASA team is doing."

He added that he was looking forward to working with the new team.

Charles Bolden, the previous NASA administrator, stepped down on Jan.  20, the first day of Trump's presidency. Saturday was Lightfoot's 225 day in the position, which The New York Times says is a record for the longest time NASA has been without a permanent leader.

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