With Robert Lightfoot’s Resignation, The Leadership Crisis At NASA Just Got REAL

astronaut NASA Shutterstock/Vladi333

Mark Whittington Contributor
Font Size:

One has to have a lot of sympathy for Robert Lightfoot. When he agreed to be acting administrator of NASA, he thought he would hold that position for a few months until a permanent head of the space agency was nominated and confirmed. Such would have been the case for most changes of presidencies. However, the Trump presidency has not been an ordinary one where nominating government officials has been concerned.

First, the president was tardy in nominating Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) waiting until September 2017 to do so. Bridenstine is a young, brilliant reformer who is steeped in space policy, having offered the American Space Renaissance Act that proposes to revamp how space is done across the length and breadth of the government. He is a former naval aviator, is a graduate of Rice University, and holds an MBA from Cornell. Bridenstine is an ideal choice to lead NASA in the brave new world of commercial partnerships. He has been endorsed by commercial space advocates, scientists, and Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

However, neither the president nor Bridenstine considered the depths to which Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida would descend in opposing his confirmation. The hearings that took place in early November featured a tag-team assault on the nominee’s record and personal character. Bridenstine took the abuse stoically, albeit likely with considerable consternation.

Four months later, Bridenstine’s confirmation is still in limbo. All 49 Democrats are thus far opposed. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), who is behaving more like Nelson’s lackey than a Republican senator, is also counted as a no vote. Since Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is absent from the Senate dealing with his health problems, the vote now stands at 50 against and 49 for. McCain, in any case, harbors his own antipathy for the gentleman from Oklahoma owning to Bridenstine’s support of a primary challenger during his last reelection.

The stated excuse for opposing Bridenstine is that he is a politician and not a scientist or engineer, laughable when one considers that James Webb and Sean O’Keefe, two brilliant NASA administrators, were also not technical people. The congressman is also accused of harboring wrong-think views on issues ranging from climate change to same-sex marriage. The real reason for the opposition to Bridenstine is a little less savory.

Nelson, who is in a tough reelection fight for his senate seat, has found it useful to pander to his base by painting Bridenstine as a right-wing boogieman. The senator also is sending a signal to the Trump White House that nothing will happen at NASA without his by-your-leave.

So, Bridenstine has been caught in limbo as the Trump administration and the Senate Democrats — plus — Rubio engage in a game of chicken. No up or down vote has been scheduled. Neither Bridenstine nor President Trump has shown willingness to withdraw the nomination, thus far.

Robert Lightfoot, as acting administrator, has been caught in the same tug-of-war. Now he has decided to include himself out and has announced his retirement effective the end of April.

Lightfoot may have rendered one last public service by giving a hard deadline to confirming a new head of NASA. All it will take is a single senator to change his or her stance and do the right thing in confirming Bridenstine. Rubio could decide that he is over some of the things said during the last presidential campaign and switch to support of the congressman, freeing himself from the thumb of Bill Nelson. A moderate Democrat, say Doug Jones of Alabama or Joe Manchin of West Virginia, could decide to buck their party and vote the interests of their states and of the United States.

If Bridenstine’s nomination goes down, the event will be a triumph for a modern-day version of McCarthyism. Such a victory for venal partisanship would be a tragedy with far-reaching consequences.

Mark Whittington writes frequently about space and politics. His political study of space exploration is 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.