James Bridenstine took some of the edge off his partisan shtick on Wednesday during his confirmation hearing to become NASA’s next administrator. But the Oklahoma congressman is wholly unfit to lead the nation’s space agency, especially at this critical juncture, and the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation should reject the nomination and force President Donald Trump to name a more serious candidate who appreciates NASA’s diverse mission both in outer space and here at home.
Even by the standards of many other Trump nominees who bring slim qualifications to their posts if not outright hostility toward the very agencies they lead, Bridenstine stands out as a weak choice and a poor fit who would likely bring more baggage than consensus. A naval aviator who was elected to Congress in 2012, Bridenstine has no credentials in science or academia, little management experience and a cloudy view of the broad mission NASA plays.
Bridenstine’s ridiculous claims — "There is no credible scientific evidence that greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations, including carbon dioxide, affect global climate" — are one thing. Another is his record in Congress of both dismissing climate change and seeking to restrict efforts to curb the burning of fossil fuels and the regulation of greenhouse gases.
He has tried to soften the edge on his views, vowing before his Senate appearance to pursue NASA’s Earth science missions. But given NASA’s outsized role in contributing to the world’s fact-based understanding of global warming, he seems a poor fit and a compromised advocate who would have a hard time carrying the day.
Bridenstine is on firmer ground in his support for returning to the moon and for manned exploration of deep space, ideals he describes as "a great tool of American foreign policy." He also has promised to drive the commercial space industry by leading efforts to improve solar power propulsion, robotics and new technology for environmental control and life-support systems, all of which have applications on Earth and which promise to boost Florida’s existing space industry.
But Bridenstine has not said how he intends to achieve all those goals with NASA’s limited funding, and he hasn’t brought a clarity of mission to the space program, which the agency has lacked for years. There is nothing difficult about promoting NASA’s global leadership, manned space flight or increased privatization of U.S. space activities. The real question is how to prioritize this range of often competing demands while keeping NASA visible on the president’s and the public’s radar screens.
Florida’s Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson have both spoken critically of the nomination, saying Bridenstine’s political baggage could harm an agency that historically has stayed above the political fray. Nelson, the top Democrat on the committee, said Wednesday that the NASA administrator should be a "space professional" who has the skills to unite all sides behind a shared mission for NASA. More than 40 scientists from Florida’s leading universities made the same appeal Wednesday in an open letter to Nelson and Rubio, warning against allowing NASA to be subject to "political whims" and underscoring the role the agency plays in monitoring the changing climate, which poses a special danger to low-lying coastal Florida.
The commerce committee could vote on the nomination as early as next week. The nation has better talent for NASA and more credible voices to carry out and build public support for its mission.