After bruising nomination fight, NASA Administrator James Bridenstine facing more challenges
Jim Bridenstine's bruising seven-month confirmation fight might have been the easy part for the newly sworn in NASA administrator.
The former Republican congressman from Tulsa took the oath of office Monday, and immediately pivots to a new set of challenges: trying win over not only the Democratic lawmakers and myriad outside groups who opposed him but also the engineers and scientists who now work under him.
"NASA has a history of great leaders," Bridenstine told the audience of NASA workers and visiting dignitaries who gathered at the agency's Washington headquarters to watch him take the oath of office. "I will do my best to serve our storied agency to the utmost of my abilities as we reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind."
The Senate confirmed Bridenstine Thursday on a 50-49 party-line vote after two wavering Republicans — Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona — agreed to back Bridenstine despite reservations. Vice President Mike Pence had lobbied them to back the controversial nominee, who has limited scientific background and no professional space-exploration experience.
Bridenstine was opposed by every Senate Democrat, some of whom had said his past skepticism of climate change, his condemnation of LGBTQ protections, and his criticism of fellow lawmakers made him unfit to lead the space agency. Rubio and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla, both said they thought NASA should be run by a "space professional" and not a politician.
On Monday, Pence shuttled to NASA headquarters to administer the oath to Bridenstine, calling the moment "a new chapter of renewed American leadership in space" in remarks that were carried live on NASA TV.
A former Navy fighter pilot, Bridenstine was executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium before winning a seat in Congress in 2013.
Howard McCurdy, an American University professor of public affairs who specializes in space policy, said Bridenstine faces an almost "impossible" task of trying to bridge the divide that nearly scuttled his nomination. He now must sell his priorities and ask for money from some of the very same lawmakers who were critical of his confirmation at a time of intense polarization on Capitol Hill.
"As a member of Congress, he’s been more immersed in partisanship than he is in science," McCurdy said. "He has an opportunity to engage in a transformational change and if he wants to be an effective, he would be advised to be as scientific as he absolutely can."
McCurdy suggested Bridenstine follow the lead of one of NASA's most noted administrators: James Webb, the one-time congressional aide and Truman administration appointee who led the fledgling space agency during the 1960s as it developed the Apollo program that would take Americans to the moon.
Others said Bridenstine — who now leads an agency with a roughly $20 billion budget, more than 18,000 employees and key operations across some 20 states — will start with a new slate.
Jim Muncy, a space expert who co-founded the Space Frontier Foundation, said opposition on Capitol Hill to Bridenstine came mainly from Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who made it "a partisan issue," and most lawmakers have a positive relationship with NASA's new administrator.
"House members (who are Democrats) who actually work on space issues with (Bridenstine) have supported him. And now he’s the NASA Administrator," Muncy said. "He has exactly the same authority as every previous NASA Administrator, with the additional resource of an involved and supportive vice president and National Space Council."
Most Democrats have no personal beef with Bridenstine and voted against him out of deference to party leaders, said Robert Walker, the former GOP chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee who supported Bridenstine's nomination.
Even Nelson, Walker said, will find a way to make peace with Bridenstine given the importance NASA's Kennedy Space Center to both Florida and the space program Nelson continually champions.
“I believe there are going to be some people who are going to be very much willing to work with him on the development of space policy," Walker said. "Beyond that, any administrator needs to do a good job of being up in the Hill, meeting with members whether they’re on the appropriate committees or not and build a base off which you can develop policy. I think Jim’s in an ideal position to do be able to do that as a former member.”
Before casting his vote last week against Bridenstine, Nelson pledged to work with whomever was approved "for the good of our nation's space program."
"I have no doubt that the nominee is passionate about our space program, and I don't doubt his motivation or his intentions," Nelson said on the Senate floor. "I think that what's not right for NASA is an administrator who is politically divisive and who is not prepared to be the last in line to make that fateful decision on go or no go for launch."
McCurdy said Bridenstine will have a "honeymoon" period to win over skeptics on Capitol Hill.
"He has a six-month window in which he can become a non-partisan advocate for space exploration and space science," he sad. "And that requires him to disassociate himself from the level of partisanship that currently exists in the Congress and this city ... he can be a politician (and) if he’s a politician in the cut of Jim Webb, he will survive.”