Politicizing NASA is the final frontier. Or I guess I should say, it was.
When the Senate confirmed Jim Bridenstine as the agency’s administrator last month, it confirmed the first politician to ever hold the post. The vote broke along party lines, and in many ways, the selection reflects the yawning chasm that defines American politics and government in 2018.
Let’s hope Bridenstine, who is now a former Congressman from Oklahoma, manages to run the agency in a way that isn’t reflective of that chasm. But he’s got a lot of proving to do. In a 2013 speech on the floor of Congress, he falsely said “global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago” and that “global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles.” He changed his tune a bit in his confirmation hearing and promised to protect scientists, which is good, but it’s unclear what sparked his turnaround on climate at a suddenly opportune time.
Prior to his Congressional career, he ran the nonprofit Tulsa Air and Space Museum. During that time, the museum racked up losses, which isn’t exactly heartening given that NASA’s $18.4 billion budget is a bit bigger than the museum’s budget of around $1.6 million. Oh, and he also used museum funds to pay a company he co-owned that raced rocket-powered aircraft. That company subsequently went under. If you can’t get people stoked on rocket racing, well, how’re you gonna run NASA?
There’s a lot at stake for NASA right now, between new missions to Mars and new missions to study the Earth. By and large, the space industry seems to have faith that Bridenstine can shoulder this massive responsibility. Time will tell if they’re right.