The nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican from Oklahoma, to be NASA administrator passed the Senate Commerce Committee on a party line vote, with 14 Republicans voting in favor and 13 Democrats voting against. The partisan divide that developed in the selection of the man to head the nation’s space agency was without precedent. The contentious nature of Bridenstine’s nomination may presage partisan rancor concerning NASA and space policy in the future.
So far, because of that divide, the full Senate has not voted to confirm Bridenstine,
The vote was pretty much predictable considering the tag team assault that the committee Democrats mounted against Bridenstine during his confirmation hearings. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, led the attack, based on two remarkable objections. The first is that Bridenstine does not have an engineering or scientific background. The second is that Bridenstine also is a politician.
The first objection can be dispensed with by noting the examples of James Webb and Sean O’Keefe, two past NASA administrators who lacked technical backgrounds but yet were wildly successful. The terms of other space agency heads such as Dan Goldin, former aerospace executive, and Charles Bolden, former astronaut, were turbulent at times, though, to be fair, the problems NASA suffered under their tenures came mainly from above their pay grade.
That Bridenstine is disqualified from running NASA because he is a politician is even more curious, considering that Nelson is also a politician. Thirty years ago, when Nelson was still a House member, he used his political muscle to snag a ride on the Space Shuttle for himself. The other crewmembers on his flight made their feelings known when they reportedly awarded Nelson the astronaut nickname of “ballast.”
It is safe to say that Bridenstine’s real sin is that he is a politician whose views Nelson does not like. The gentleman from Oklahoma’s political experience might be an advantage in his dealings with Congress when he is in charge of NASA.
Bridenstine also came under fire because he once expressed skepticism about human-caused climate change, a subject that has become more a religious than scientific matter among certain people. The congressman has since moderated his views and, in any case, has vowed support for NASA’s Earth Science research.
Bridenstine opposed same-sex marriage, views once held by former President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Commerce Committee Democrats viewed this as evidence that the nominee hates gay people. Bridenstine voted against the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, albeit on narrow, constitutional grounds. The Democrats suggested the vote means that the nominee hates women.
The partisan outrage expressed by the Senate Commerce Committee Democrats and their subsequent votes against Bridenstine’s confirmation were so ludicrous that a cynical person could be forgiven for suspecting that the real reason for the opposition is one that is not being spoken of. Could it be that the Democrats are so angry that Donald Trump is president that they are opposing Bridenstine simply because he is the nominee of a man they so clearly despise?
One would like to give the senators credit that their opposition is based on something deeper than blind anger. Bridenstine is the author of a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act that seeks to reform the way that space is done, not just at NASA but across the government and the private sector. He is a warm supporter of commercial space partnerships and a return to the moon. Senator Nelson’s real objection may be that he finds the prospect of change in space policy to be unsettling, especially if he thinks it will affect the Kennedy Space Center, which resides in his state. Nelson should be more forthcoming about the real reasons he opposes Bridenstine and not express obvious nonsense about his being a politician without a technical background.
Right now a vote of the full Senate to conform Brindenstine is on hold pending enough Republicans to vote in favor of him. All of the Democrats are expected to vote against. In the meantime NASA is without a permanent administrator just as it has been charged with leading America back to the moon.
The possibility of partisan battles over the future of NASA space policy has become real. Will Democrats start to oppose the Trump administration plans to return to the moon and forge commercial partnerships to do so out of blind political pique? Sen Ted Cruz, a Republican member of the committee and an ally of Bridenstine, warned of the consequences of such a development when he said, “But, I would say to my Democratic friends on this committee, that if the confirmation ends up going down to a party-line vote, I think that would be deeply unfortunate for NASA and for the space community.”
Cruz’s prediction is, sadly, likely to be accurate.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.