Winners and losers from Jim Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator

Winners and losers from Jim Bridenstine’s confirmation as NASA administrator
© Getty Images

The vote along party lines to confirm Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) brought to a conclusion a drama that could have come out of a novel co-authored by Allen Drury and P. J. O’Rourke. It had equal parts suspense and unintentional comedy that was too strange for fiction. The confirmation battle took place over many months, with the young, reformist congressman weathering a barrage of attacks on his politics and his character.

Lawmakers led by Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonDemocrats target Florida Hispanics in 2020 Poll: Six Democrats lead Trump in Florida match-ups How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA MORE (D-Fla.) accused Bridenstine of being a politician and a “divisive” one, at that. The congressman’s opponents trotted out the science of climate change as a reason to oppose him, though in a tone that suggested that he was being accused of committing heresy by expressing skepticism. 


The final days contained some drama. Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFlake responds to Trump, Jimmy Carter barbs: 'We need to stop trying to disqualify each other' Jeff Flake responds to Trump's 'greener pastures' dig on former GOP lawmakers Trump says he's 'very happy' some GOP senators have 'gone on to greener pastures' MORE (R-Ariz.) was an initial no vote for cloture before changing to a yes after he won concessions concerning an unrelated matter. Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthAdvocates push for EpiPens on flights after college student's mid-flight allergic reaction Overnight Defense: Woman accusing general of sexual assault willing to testify | Joint Chiefs pick warns against early Afghan withdrawal | Tensions rise after Iran tries to block British tanker Woman accusing Trump military nominee of sexual assault says she's willing to testify MORE (D-Ill.) achieved a Senate first by being wheeled onto the floor to issue a no vote on confirmation with her newborn baby in her arms.


However, Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - Trump attack on progressive Dems draws sharp rebuke Biggest hurdles to reaching the moon and Mars are not technical Asteroids headed for Earth? Poll shows Americans are ill-informed about space MORE has now been confirmed as administrator of NASA, despite it all, and there are winners and losers.

Bridenstine himself is the chief among the winners. He wanted the job of NASA administrator and lobbied for it. He was nominated in early September, much later than has been customary, and then spent grueling months enduring abuse as his allies fought to get him confirmed.

Now he is at the head of an agency that has been charged with getting Americans back to the moon while reinventing itself as a partner and customer for the burgeoning commercial space sector. However, Bridenstine has spent the months between his nomination and confirmation attending meetings as an observer, reading briefing material, and listening to advice from some of the best space experts on the planet. He would seem to be as ready as any person can be.

Nelson is the most prominent loser coming out of the affair. He tried to stop Bridenstine’s confirmation and failed to do so, somewhat diminishing his self-appointed role as the guardian of Florida’s space interests. Nelson now has to embark on a grueling fight to keep his Senate seat from a challenge by Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott. He is in the meantime going to be well advised to make nice with the man whose ambitions he tried so hard to thwart. 

Along with Nelson, two red-state senators who also voted no, Doug Jones (D-Al.) and Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump nominees meet fiercest opposition from Warren, Sanders, Gillibrand Kentucky Democrat says primary challenge to McGrath 'might be helpful' McConnell's Democratic challenger McGrath backtracks on Kavanaugh comments MORE (D-W.Va.), were also losers. Alabama and West Virginia both have considerable aerospace sectors.

Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioHillicon Valley: FTC reportedly settles with Facebook for B fine | Trump calls to regulate Facebook's crypto project | Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract | Study shows automation will hit rural areas hardest Court rules Pentagon can award B 'war cloud' contract later this summer Rubio asks White House to delay B Pentagon contract over Amazon concerns   MORE (R-Fla.) is a winner. He had echoed the reservations of Nelson and the other Democrats for months before throwing his support to Bridenstine. Rubio’s stated reason was that he wanted to spare NASA a leadership crisis with the impending resignation of the acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot.

Nevertheless, Rubio handed the control of NASA to Bridenstine on the proverbial silver platter. He has won for himself a ready ear for whatever concerns he might have about space policy as it might affect Florida. If Nelson loses his seat this year, Rubio’s importance in determining how America moves forward on the space frontier will only increase.

The commercial space sector was another winner, as suggested by the accolades on Twitter that poured in from such organizations as Moon Express and Bigelow Space Ops. Bridenstine has long been a champion of partnerships between NASA and commercial companies to fulfill its space exploration mission. Now, space entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Bob Richards know that they have a friend and ally at the head of the space agency. Bill Nye (no slouch where it comes to climate change) of the Planetary Society and Robert Zubrin of the Mars Society, two important space advocacy organizations, also lent their good wishes.

Bridenstine has a tough job ahead of him. He will have to satisfy often competing political interests on the long road back to the moon. He also has to fulfill NASA’s other mandates from planetary exploration to Earth science with a budget that will always seem inadequate.

He now has his moment to make some history. The United States and human civilization will be the better, should he succeed.

Mark Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond.”