U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) discussing his American Space Renaissance Act during a keynote address Tuesday at the 32nd Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

COLORADO SPRINGS — The most contentious nomination process for a NASA administrator in the agency’s six-decade history came to an end April 19 when the Senate voted to confirm Jim Bridenstine.

The Senate voted 50–49 to confirm Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, as the agency’s 13th administrator. The party-line vote for a NASA administrator is unprecedented, as past administrators have been confirmed by the Senate with little or no dissent.

The vote brought an end to a nomination process unlike any other since NASA was established in 1958. The White House formally nominated Bridenstine for the position Sept. 1 after a months-long search during which he was widely seen as a front-runner. The nomination had the support of much of the space industry.

Bridenstine’s nomination faced strong opposition from Democratic senators, who argued that he was not qualified to serve as administrator and held views on topics ranging from climate change to social issues that disqualified him from leading the agency. That led to party-line votes by the Senate Commerce Committee in November and again in January to advance the nomination to the full Senate.

One Republican senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, also expressed concerns about Bridenstine’s qualifications to lead NASA. With Republicans holding only a 51–49 majority in the Senate, and with fellow Republican Sen. John McCain absent for health reasons, that effectively blocked the nomination.

Rubio changed his mind recently, though, allowing the nomination to proceed to a vote. The Senate voted 50–48 April 18 to invoke cloture on the nomination, limiting floor debate and setting up the vote. That also had some unexpected drama as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) initially voted against the motion, creating a 49–49 deadlock. Flake later changed his vote to allow the motion to pass, and his initial opposition was due to issues unrelated to Bridenstine’s nomination.

Rubio, in a floor speech April 19, explained that the impending retirement of NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot led to change his mind and support Bridenstine. “I was not enthused about the nomination. Nothing personal against Mr. Bridenstine,” he said. “I felt NASA is an organization that needs to be led by a space professional.”

But, he said, with Lightfoot’s retirement, “it leaves us with the prospect of this incredibly important agency for Florida and the country with a vacancy in its top job and we’re on our second acting administrator.” Rubio said he feared that, if Bridenstine was not confirmed, a new nominee might be confirmed until early next year.

“There is no way NASA can go two years and X number of months without a permanent administrator,” he said. “So, you make these decisions always under the context that a president should have significant discretion in picking the team.”

Democratic members expressed their continued opposition to Bridenstine prior to the vote. “The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional. That’s what this senator wants, a space professional, not a politician as the head of NASA,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who led the opposition to the nomination, in an April 18 floor speech.

However, Nelson said he would work with Bridenstine if he did become NASA administrator. “If Congressman Bridenstine is, in fact, confirmed, I will work with him for the good of our nation’s space program,” he said. “I have no doubt that the nominee is passionate about our space program and I don’t doubt his motivation or his intentions.”

“It is an honor to be confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as NASA administrator,” Bridenstine said in a statement immediately after the vote. “I am humbled by this opportunity, and I once again thank President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their confidence. I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the president’s vision for American leadership in space.”

Industry groups also immediately weighed in on his confirmation.

“The Senate vote today marks the beginning of Jim’s tenure at our nation’s space agency as America prepares to return to the moon and push further into deep space,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive of the Coalition of Deep Space Exploration. “The Coalition looks forward to working closely with Administrator Bridenstine and his team to support NASA’s human exploration and space science programs.”

“NASA needs dedicated and inspired leadership, and Rep. Bridenstine is an outstanding choice to provide precisely that,” said Alan Stern, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “We look forward to working with you to advance America’s civil and commercial spaceflight enterprises.”

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...