In the midst of two hurricanes hitting the U.S. over the last few weeks, one of Donald Trump’s picks to fill out his severely understaffed administration slipped by without much airplay. Which is too bad, as the office he will oversee is NASA, the world’s premier space exploration and research agency. The man in question: James Frederick ”Jim” Bridenstine.
Bridentstine does not have an engineering or space science background. He comes with an MBA and a stint as a Navy pilot flying the E-2 Hawkeye, a sort of little brother to the better known Boeing 737 configured for the same role, and commonly called an AWAC. He was also the director of Tulsa’s Air & Space Museum. In the summer of 2012, Bridenstine knocked off five-term GOP rep John Sullivan in the primary, part and parcel to the tea party wave that began in the prior midterm, and handily won election later that year in Oklahoma’s ruby red 1st Congressional District. He went on to sit on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and the Science subcommittee on Space, both of which directly oversee organizations like NASA.
Bridenstine’s nomination to head the agency was rumored for weeks and officially announced on Sept 1. If confirmed, he will be the first member of Congress to serve as NASA director since its inception in the summer of 1958. Given his background, there is definitely cause for concern about this nomination. But there may be some slight rays of hope, too.
Like many Republicans who won office in that period and like many politicians from oil and gas-producing states like Oklahoma, Bridenstine has expressed views deeply critical of human-induced climate change. Some of them are right out of the fossil fuel lobby’s playbook. Just months after being sworn in, Bridenstine gave a short statement that reads like something out of an Exxon-Koch brothers think tank. Via Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy, he said in part:
Mr. Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with Sun output and ocean cycles. During the Medieval Warm Period from 800 to 1300 A.D.—long before cars, power plants, or the Industrial Revolution—temperatures were warmer than today. During the Little Ice Age from 1300 to 1900 A.D., temperatures were cooler. Neither of these periods were caused by any human activity.
There are so many things wrong with that statement that it would take several in-depth posts just to correct one-half of it. Paleo-climate researcher Micheal Mann, coauthor of The Madhouse Effect (reviewed here) responded via email, summing up the view of many scientists: “That sort of scientific ignorance would be dangerous in a dogcatcher, let alone the NASA administrator. We expect better than shopworn climate change denial talking points from someone being seriously considered to run one of America's greatest scientific institutions.“
Earth is obviously the most important planet NASA studies. Just the images from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma courtesy of the new NASA/NOAA GOES16 weather satellites demonstrate the value of that coordinated effort. Earth science funding at NASA, NOAA, and everywhere else is always under direct threat from conservatives. It remains to be seen where Bridenstine might go on that, but given his past statements and partisan leaning, there is real cause for concern.
But according to Keith Cowing at NASA Watch, there is also some hope. Bridenstine recently recognized the threat of climate change with regard to the Arctic and national security. He strongly supported a bipartisan bill called the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act of 2017, which improves NOAA’s forecasting ability and will facilitate climate research. The bill would require the NWS and other weather and climate orgs to modernize, share data with public and private agencies, and implement recent innovations in that data analysis. This is intended to help scientists better predict weather, including how phenomena like global warming can cause rapid bursts of intensity in tropical storms. Here’s an example of that language:
(Sec. 301) NOAA must complete and operationalize the Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere, and Climate (a weather satellite program which develops observational techniques using global navigation systems).
Of course storm tracking and climate research is not NASA’s only responsibility—far from it. The agency was created to enable humans to explore space in the post-Sputnik, Cold War panic of the late 1950s. Now NASA has come to a critical crossroads, due in large part to the recent retirement of the space shuttle. Right now we are wholly dependent on Russia, of all countries, to get U.S. astronauts into low Earth orbit, let alone beyond. Since Russia’s Baikonur launch facility and Soyuz spacecraft are the only game in town to get people off the planet, they can charge what they damn well please and cut off that access anytime they choose. There are companies from the NewSpace sector, like SpaceX and Blue Origin, waiting in the wings with proven solutions to that problem. We can rapidly regain our manned launch capacity at a fraction of the roughly $60 million per seat we are currently paying, and dramatically cut the development time for man-rated boosters and spacecraft we’d otherwise face. The only real domestic obstacle to moving forward are the traditional defense-aerospace lobbies, which still have considerable influence over NASA policy.
Bridenstine appears at least open to the idea of making that critical course change. Instead of developing boosters, habs, and new spacecraft that can take us back to the moon and beyond, NASA would be able to buy rides like we all do when flying cross country on an airline, or ordering them to spec the way the Coast Guard does when buying ships and aircraft.
Last but not least, there’s the matter of the International Space Station: what do we do with the ISS? The US and a number of other countries have invested a lot of time and money to get about 100 metric tons with enough hab space for dozens of visitors into low Earth orbit. And, while we've gotten some return, it's an open question as to how much and how much more we can get. If we do nothing, at some point we will lose the ISS to orbital decay, or it will slowly become defunct due to aging solar panels and other equipment. How much are we willing to spend or save, to preserve or lose, the capabilities it has to offer?
So, on balance, Bridenstine comes with pluses and minuses and will have to make some of the hardest -- and perhaps the most politically risky -- decisions NASA has faced in decades. But at least he seems to have a genuine passion for aerospace, and he hasn’t made an ass of himself by threatening to shut down or hollow out the very department he will oversee, like Energy Secretary Rick Perry or EPA head Scott Pruitt. That’s an admittedly low bar, but in the era of Trump, perhaps we should be grateful for a nominee who clears any bar at all.