NASA needs better leadership

Sam Groves

Back on the campaign trail, then-candidate Donald Trump bemoaned the state of the American space program: “Look what’s happened with our whole history of space and leadership,” he told a crowd in Florida. “Look what’s going on folks. We’re like a third-world nation.” 

This was back in August 2016, when the odds of a Trump victory still seemed, well, astronomical. But a funny thing happened on the way to a permanent Democratic majority and now, one year later, President Donald Trump has the chance to make NASA great again.

To that end, after nine months in office, Trump has nominated Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine to serve as NASA administrator, pending confirmation by the Senate. But if Trump wants to improve the agency and restore American leadership in outer space, Bridenstine is the wrong choice.

Back in July, my fellow columnist Ryan Young wrote that to become a better agency, NASA requires a clear vision. He was right — under inconsistent leadership, NASA has suffered from constantly shifting visions for the agency’s future. Bridenstine will only make this worse. He wants to refocus NASA’s mission on putting American astronauts back on the moon, which is a perfectly noble goal — just as noble as it was seven years ago, when it was abandoned by the Obama administration in favor of landing American astronauts on Mars.

Bridenstine would continue a pattern of instability that has made it difficult for NASA to establish a clear vision of the future. The agency’s long-term mission, mired in fits and starts, will remain that way as long as it is radically altered by each incoming administration.

Moreover, if NASA is to organize manned missions to the Moon, let alone to Mars, it will need two things: money and expertise. Bridenstine brings neither of these things to the table. He is a politician, not a scientist, with a political history that would make him a liability to the agency. The congressman belongs to the unabashedly right-wing House Freedom Caucus, opposes same-sex marriage and other civil rights for LGBTQ people and has repeatedly expressed skepticism toward climate change.

Of course, Bridenstine is welcome to his own opinions. But the idea that the leader of a scientific organization would espouse such unscientific views is unseemly at the very least. More importantly, Bridenstine’s political baggage could jeopardize funding for NASA by bringing unwanted controversy to an organization that has historically been above partisanship.

As for scientific experience, Bridenstine has none to speak of, which sets him apart from previous NASA administrators. And while Bridenstine’s mission to boldly go where no man so lacking in qualifications has gone before is certainly audacious, it could spell disaster for the agency. Just ask Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Trump ally, who told Politico he thought Bridenstine’s leadership “could be devastating for the space program.”

Rubio understands why no politician has ever served as NASA administrator. So does fellow Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, who said that “the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.” Rubio is a Republican, and Nelson is a Democrat, but they’re both right, and Texans who care about the future of an organization that invests so heavily in our state should be concerned about Bridenstine’s nomination.

Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.