White House nominates Bridenstine as NASA administrator

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Updated 8:45 p.m. Eastern after White House announcement.

WASHINGTON — After leaving the space community waiting and wondering for months, the White House announced Sept. 1 that President Trump planned to nominate Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) as NASA administrator.

In a statement issued late Sept. 1, the White House announced its intent to nominate Bridenstine to the position, standard terminology to indicate that the nomination had not yet been formally transmitted to the Senate. The one-paragraph statement provided only biographical information about Bridenstine, and no discussion about the reasons the president chose to nominate him.

The announcement came after several space industry sources, speaking on background, said they anticipated a formal nomination of Bridenstine to run the space agency on Sept. 5, the day after the Labor Day holiday. At the time, they cautioned that the nomination could be delayed after the 5th depending on administration activities.

Bridenstine emerged as an early favorite for NASA administrator immediately after Donald Trump won the presidential election last November. Bridenstine has been active on space issues in Congress and was also a staunch supporter of Trump’s candidacy in the general election.

As the Trump administration took office, though, months passed without any action on selecting an administrator. Some in the space industry speculated that Bridenstine had fallen out of favor with some in the White House, while others noted that this administration has been historically slow in filling posts across the federal government that, like the NASA administrator, require confirmation by the Senate.

In recent weeks, Bridenstine had reemerged as the favorite to be nominated as NASA administrator. At the time, insiders expected Bridenstine’s nomination to be announced at the same time as that of John Schumacher, vice president of Washington operations at Aerojet Rocketdyne and a former NASA chief of staff, as deputy administrator. Those reports were first published last month by Ars Technica and NASA Watch.

That timing, though, is now in question. While Bridenstine’s nomination will go forward, some sources said prior to the Sept. 1 announcement that Schumacher’s nomination may be postponed because of delays in the vetting process, which started relatively late. Schumacher’s nomination was not announced Sept. 1.

Bridenstine, in his third term in the House, has been active on space issues as a member of both the House Armed Services Committee and the House Science Committee, despite the limited space activities in his home district. He frequently speaks at space events on issues ranging from funding the Federal Aviation Administration’s office that licenses commercial launches to improving national security space programs.

He is best known in the space community for his introduction in 2016 of the American Space Renaissance Act, a wide-ranging bill that included provisions regarding national security, civil and commercial space. While the act did not become law, some of its language was incorporated into other legislation.

Bridenstine had indicated earlier this year that he planned to introduce an updated version of the bill, but only after receiving input from industry. “We’re not going to rush it,” he said in a March speech. “Our target would be before the end of the year.” That updated bill has not yet been introduced.

His work on the legislation and other space issues, in particular an emphasis on greater reliance on the commercial sector, has won him support in industry. “Jim Bridenstine has a passion for space that is unparalleled, and a knowledge of the field that is both broad and deep,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee and vice president at Space Systems Loral. “If he is selected as NASA administrator it will be a home run for the administration.”

The expected nomination will likely coincide with the first meeting of the National Space Council, formally reestablished in an executive order signed by President Trump June 30. In a July 6 speech at the Kennedy Space Center, Vice President Mike Pence, who will serve as the council’s chairman, said he planned to hold the council’s first meeting “before the summer is out.”

Greg Autry, former White House liaison at NASA, said in an Aug. 30 speech that he expected the council to hold its first meeting “very, very shortly,” but did not give a specific date. Sources said they expect the council’s first meeting some time the week of Sept. 5.

NASA has been led since the beginning of the Trump administration by an acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, and an acting deputy administrator, Lesa Roe. Lightfoot has been in that position for nearly seven and a half months, the longest NASA has been led by an acting administrator in the agency’s history.

Lightfoot is expected to remain acting administrator for at least several more weeks, even if a nomination is announced soon, because of the length of the Senate confirmation process. In 2009, it took nearly two months for the Senate to confirm the nomination of Charles Bolden as NASA administrator.

Roe is expected to leave the agency in the coming weeks, though, after the Board of Regents of the University of North Texas named her the sole finalist to become the university’s next chancellor Aug. 17. The board will likely make a formal decision to hire her later this month.