Lightfoot House budget hearing
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA's fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Updated March 13 9:30 a.m. Eastern with reaction to announcement.

WASHINGTON — Robert Lightfoot, who has led NASA on an interim basis for more than a year, announced March 12 that he will retire from the agency at the end of April, adding more uncertainty about the agency’s leadership.

“It is with bittersweet feelings that I am announcing I will be retiring from the agency on April 30, 2018,” Lightfoot said in a memo to agency staff. “I will work with the White House on a smooth transition to the new administrator.” Lightfoot didn’t discuss why he decided to retire in the memo.

Lightfoot came to NASA Headquarters in September 2012 as associate administrator, the highest-ranking civil service position at the agency and third highest position overall, behind administrator and deputy administrator. Lightfoot, who joined NASA in 1989 as a test engineer working on the space shuttle main engine, served as director of the Marshall Space Flight Center from March 2009 until being named associate administrator.

Lightfoot has been acting administrator since the beginning of the Trump administration in January 2017, a period of nearly 14 months. That tenure has shattered the record for the longest time the agency, which turns 60 years old later this year, has been led by an acting administrator.

The White House nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) to be administrator in September 2017 and resubmitted the nomination in January. In both cases Bridenstine’s nomination has been advanced by the Senate Commerce Committee on a strict party-line vote, but the full Senate has yet to take action to confirm Bridenstine.

There is a widespread belief in the space industry that the Senate has not acted on Bridenstine’s nomination because he lacks to votes to win confirmation. All 49 Democrats in the Senate are opposed to Bridenstine, as well as reportedly Rep. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) still absent from the Senate because of cancer treatments, Bridenstine lacks the 50 votes needed to be confirmed.

In a statement March 12, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee and a leading critic of Bridenstine’s nomination, praised Lightfoot’s work leading NASA on an interim while calling on the White House to nominate someone else to lead the agency.

“The White House needs to nominate a space professional for NASA administrator who will actually garner strong bipartisan support. The current nominee doesn’t have the votes,” Nelson said.

Members of the House Science Committee criticized the Senate for not taking action on Bridenstine’s nomination during a March 7 hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal attended by Lightfoot.

“In the environment we work in, the resources that the agency needs in the long term, having a director nominated and confirmed by the United States Senate from the administration is critically important,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Lightfoot said at that hearing he did not have problems getting access to the White House when needed, but that there was value in having a permanent administrator in place. “It is always of value to have the person the president wants in this position,” he said. “That would be important for us all from that standpoint.” He gave no indication at the hearing of any plans to retire.

In a tweet late March 12, Vice President Mike Pence thanked Lightfoot for his service while calling for Bridenstine to be confirmed. “@RepJBridenstine would continue @NASA’s important work & the Senate should swiftly confirm him as Administrator to carry on NASA’s proud tradition,” he wrote.

Capping nearly 30 years in government, we thank Robert Lightfoot for his service to @NASA & our Nation. @RepJBridenstine would continue @NASA’s important work & the Senate should swiftly confirm him as Administrator to carry on NASA’s proud tradition.

— Vice President Mike Pence (@VP) March 13, 2018

“I cannot express enough my gratitude to the entire NASA team for the support during my career and especially the last 14 months as your acting administrator,” Lightfoot said in his retirement memo. “The grit and determination you all demonstrate every day in achieving our missions of discovery and exploration are simply awe inspiring.”

Lightfoot’s departure adds to a leadership void in the agency. In addition to the stalled Bridenstine nomination, the White House has not nominated a deputy administrator for the agency. The nomination of Jeffrey DeWit to be NASA chief financial officer, announced in November, is pending confirmation by the full Senate.

NASA recently named Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for space technology and former director of the Langley Research Center, as acting associate administrator, taking over the responsibilities Lightfoot held in that position. Krista Paquin serves as deputy associate administrator, a position she took in November.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...