Why Donald Trump's NASA Chief Pick Is So Controversial

The White House announced President Donald Trump’s preferred pick to head NASA on Friday night, but the choice is already proving unpopular, with Florida senators criticizing Trump's choice.

The man nominated is Oklahoma congressman Jim Bridenstine, who would become the 13th administrator of the national space agency upon Senate approval. The role’s responsibilities include serving as senior space science adviser to the president, leading the agency and managing its resources.

However, Republican senator Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, both of Florida, home to NASA's space center at Cape Canaveral, have criticized the appoinment of someone political and with a perceived lack of experience.

Bridenstine did serve as a pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve for nine years and is a former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium between December 2008 and August 2010.

Jim Bridenstine
Jim Bridenstine

Congressman Jim Bridenstine is President Donald Trump's pick for NASA administrator. Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

He was elected to Congress in 2012 to represent Oklahoma’s First Congressional District and currently sits on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees energy research in the U.S. and opposed the 2015 Paris climate deal. His interest in space was shown in the American Space Renaissance Act he introduced in 2016 and, though it did not pass, parts of the legislation were used in other bills.

But unlike previous NASA administrators, the 42-year-old Michigan native does not have any formal qualifications in science or engineering, having earned a triple bachelor's degree in economics, psychology and business from Rice University, and later an MBA from Cornell University.

The Congressman says he has business experience in real estate, ranching, aerospace, and defense contracting. According to Ars Technica, who first tipped Bridestine for the position in August, the congressman is popular among commercial space companies as he supports an increased privatization of U.S. civil and military space activities.

NASA logo
NASA logo

NASA's logo at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, United States on January 21, 2015. Florida senators have expressed concerns over President Donald Trump's pick for NASA chief. Kenan Irtak/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Bridenstine was a strong supporter of Trump’s presidency and was interviewed for the second time for the role in April, as he confirmed to an Oklahoma publication. But Rubio said he is worried the nomination has more to do with politics than competence.

“I just think it could be devastating for the space program. Obviously, being from Florida, I’m very sensitive to anything that slows up NASA and its mission,” Rubio told Politico.

“It’s the one federal mission which has largely been free of politics and it’s at a critical juncture in its history,” Rubio said. “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.”

Democrat Senator Nelson echoed Rubio’s concerns. “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” he said in a written statement to Politico.

Explaining his interest in space in February at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Bridenstine said: "People often say, 'Why are you so involved in space issues? You don't have any space interests in Oklahoma.' You bet I do. My constituents get killed in tornadoes."

Bridenstine’s concern regarding extremee weather phenomena does not extend to climate change. In a speech on the House floor in 2013, he bashed then-President Barack Obama for spending “30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warning,” exaggerating the discrepancy, as Polifact verified.

Despite the controversy, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot welcomed Bridenstine’s nomination in a statement on Friday. “I am pleased to have Representative 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.”

Lightfoot is expected to remain in acting role for several more weeks as the nomination process can be lengthy. He already broke a record as the longest NASA has been led by an acting administrator in the agency’s history, nearly seven and a half months.

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