In a 50-49 vote Thursday, the U.S. Senate confirmed congressman Jim Bridenstine -- a Republican lawmaker from Oklahoma -- to head the nation’s space program, marking the first time NASA will be led by a politician.
Typically, NASA administrators are chosen from within NASA’s ranks, come up through the military, or have a background in science. Bridenstine has none of that. His qualifications: He’s former Navy pilot who once ran the Air and Space Museum in Tulsa. He also sits on the House Committee that oversees NASA. The third-term representative is now the first member of Congress to hold the administrator job.
Bridenstine also holds views on climate change that make him an odd choice to head the program:
As a politician, Bridenstine has hedged on climate change, an issue NASA scientists study and track in many different ways. During his confirmation hearing in November, Bridenstine agreed that humans are the driving force behind climate change, but he would not agree with the assertion that human activity is the primary cause of it. It’s an odd position to hold as the leader of an agency that provides some of the most comprehensive data on climate change in the world.
Numerous senators opposed Trump’s pick, including Republicans who appear to have warmed up to the idea since Bridenstine’s initial nomination.
Much remains unclear. What we do know is that the Trump administration, as a whole, has been hostile to the idea of NASA as an earth science agency and left it to languish without a full-time administrator longer than any previous administration. In 2017, the administration proposed cutting $102 million from NASA’s earth science programs and eliminating four NASA earth science missions completely. Congress didn’t allow those cuts to come to pass. But NASA’s long-term future is far from assured.