“NASA In Limbo” –Still Without a Permanent Leader

 
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“The leader of NASA should not be political. The leader of NASA should not be bipartisan; the leader of NASA should be nonpartisan. And when that has occurred — when it has been partisan in the past — we’ve had a disaster,” Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee.


NASA has been without a permanent administrator since its previous leader, former astronaut Charles Bolden, resigned the day Trump took office over a year ago. The space agency has had an acting administrator — Robert Lightfoot — who has been fulfilling the role in the meantime, but this month, he announced his plans to retire at the end of April. Unless a permanent administrator is confirmed before then, NASA will be forced to rely on another temporary leader.

 

More than 60 representatives from the House are calling on the Senate to get a move on and confirm the Trump administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, reports today's The Verge. The group — which includes mostly Republicans and a dozen Democrats — sent a signed letter to the Senate majority and minority leaders, urging them to vote and accept Trump’s candidate, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK). They argue that without a leader, it’ll be hard to oversee the ambitious plans that the government has for NASA.

It’s an unusual situation that NASA has never quite faced before. The longest gaps in permanent leadership hovered around five and a half months. Without the position truly filled, NASA lacks an effective political liaison, someone who both understands the White House’s visions and the realities of what NASA can do. “No one else can really be inside the agency helping to have NASA understand where the president wants to take the organization and then go to the White House to say, ‘These are NASA’s capabilities,’” Lori Garver, the former deputy administrator of NASA under President Obama, tells The Verge.

Plus, uncertain leadership makes it hard for NASA to execute bold new changes, and that’s exactly what the administration wants for NASA right now: to do big, new things. Trump directed the agency to send humans back to the Moon, and his administration recently proposed ending direct federal funding for the International Space Station in order to transition the domain of lower Earth orbit to the private sector. “Now is not the time to leave NASA rudderless,” the representatives write in their letter. “We urge the Senate to confirm Jim Bridenstine swiftly and allow him to lead the world’s premier space agency into the next age of space exploration.”

Trump nominated Bridentstine back in September, as the Oklahoma representative has been heavily involved with space policy in his home state over the last few years. Since tornadoes are a problem in Oklahoma, Bridenstine has worked with NOAA and NASA to help improve weather forecasting from satellites. He’s also drafted his own legislation to change regulation surrounding the commercial space industry.

Still, Bridenstine faces an uphill battle. After he was nominated, he endured a very contentious preliminary confirmation hearing in November with the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. Many of the Democratic senators on the committee called out Bridenstine for his incorrect statements on climate change, as well as his support of anti-LGBT initiatives. But above all, many criticized that Bridenstine is a politician without a science background (though other non-scientists have run NASA before).

The image above is one of the new NASA Exoplanets posters.

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