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Still Waiting For Bridenstine (Update)

By Keith Cowing
October 17, 2017
Filed under
Still Waiting For Bridenstine (Update)

Keith’s update: Sources report that Bridenstine’s confirmation hearing will be on 1 November.
Keith’s update: Still no word as to when the confirmation hearing for NASA Administrator nominee Rep. James Bridenstine will be held. There has been no change to this nomination status page for Bridenstine – nor is there any update to this matrix of pending nominations or on the hearings calendar for the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
A date in the last week of September had been penciled in but this was pushed back 2 weeks so that Sen. Nelson and others could deal with a backlog of hurricane-related issues. Since then things have been delayed further. Sen. Rubio still has issues that seem to point back to the 2016 primary season. Meanwhile Sen. Nelson is digging his feet in in terms of opposing Bridenstine and now wants to delay the confirmation hearing indefinitely on the whole climate change issue.
Meanwhile, Bridenstine has been at NASA Headquarters to start the confirmation preparation process. Headquarters veteran Tom Cremins and newcomer Brandon Eden (both with extensive Capitol Hill experience) are in charge of those confirmation hearing preparations.

It is unlikely that Bridenstine will face any significant push back with the exception of prior statements he made with regard to climate issues – with the exception of those Senators who focus on these issues. It is important to note that it is one thing to make public stands that resonate with the conservative district in Oklahoma who sent you to Congress. It is quite another to represent the planetary scope of the research conducted by NASA along with NOAA and other agencies. Already a pivot is in evidence wherein Bridenstine has made blunt statements about seeing climate change with his own eyes in the arctic and trying (perhaps not successfully) to link climatological studies on Earth with those done on other planets. I expect that his discussion of this topic will settle at a point that balances Administration policy and the compelling body of scientific work resident at NASA and elsewhere.
It is all but a certainty that Bridenstine will pass through the committee’s confirmation hearings on (at least) a party line vote and that full Senate confirmation presents few if any obstacles. I have yet to encounter a single person who does not personally like Bridenstine – indeed everyone he’s interacted with seems to think that he’s just the sort of young energetic, space supporter that the agency needs right now. Those who think that someone else should be picked due to a lack of an over scientific background on Bridenstine’s part should look back at recent history and ask themselves what happened the last time we have a rocket scientist at the helm and what happened when a professional government manager was in charge.
Right now NASA has all the science and technology smarts that it needs. All that Bridenstine has to do is walk out his door on the 9th floor and he can find it within a few minutes. What NASA does lack right now is someone at the top with the support of both the President and Vice President – someone with a vision, the energy, and hands-on political experience in Congress so as to maneuver NASA through this historically chaotic time. Bridenstine has been the heir apparent since last Fall. Contrary to the usual process where names come and go Bridenstine’s name sat steadfastly at the top of the list for 9 months. This suggests both confidence on the part of the Administration – and lack of a viable candidate from Congress and the space community.
Bridenstine is going to have to do some heavy lifting from the onset. Luckily (it seems) Robert Lightfoot will return to his prior job at NASA HQ where he has been de facto COO of NASA for a number of years making sure all of the trains run exactly on time. Lightfoot did this while the agency’s most recent deputy administrator was on perpetual travel with no known responsibilities and the administrator was similarly doing his victory lap. Lightfoot kept the lights on.
The National Space Council will eventually issue forth something with the word “policy” on it – but this will take a year or more if past experience is a guide – especially with all of the agencies involved. Bridenstine can’t wait for that. He is going to have to take what is sitting on his plate and cobble it together into a cohesive plan. He has to find a path that balances commercial space with SLS/Orion development, planetary- space- and earth science, aeronautics and technology, and education such that all of NASA’s chartered responsibilities get the support that they need. And all of this needs to be in synch with both White House pronouncements and congressional oversight.
Ideally, this all needs to be collected together into a simple, basic paradigm under which the agency conducts itself. Are we still doing #JourneyToMars or is it going to be #BackToTheMoon instead? And if so will the agency pivot in an integrated fashion or will it fractionate with lots of uncoordinated pivots to keep pet projects alive, make sure that all big aerospace and new space companies are happy, that stovepipes are as tall as they need to be, and that everyone’s sand box is always full?
As accomplished as NASA is, it is running on fumes in many ways – with aging infrastructure and a chronic lack of the requsite influx of new skils – all while the private sector is using their own money to mount space programs on a scale that only countries used to to be able do. Someone needs to pump some energy back into the agency.
Bridenstine does not have the luxury to wait for Scott Pace and Vice President Pence to give him specific marching orders from the National Space Council. Nor should he wait since so many of NASA probelms are self-evident in terms of what needs to be done. He’s going to have to figure that out himself. And he is going to need everyone’s help to do that. Or (once again) y’all can sit there and wait for someone else to make a move or wait until the next guy shows up – or do whatever it takes until your carpool leaves at 3:30.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.