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This Is The Longest NASA Has Ever Gone Without a Formal Administrator

Science help us.

SCIENCE AF STAFF
1 DEC 2017
 

NASA - a leading science agency in the U.S. - has never gone this long without a formal administrator, according to a new report from Ars Technica.

Ever since taking office, President Trump has been filling the scientific positions in his government at a snail's pace. As a result, nearly eleven months into his presidency, Trump has very little scientific guidance, and many key scientific agencies are being run by stand-in directors.

 

NASA is no different.

On January 20, after seven years on the job, astronaut Charles Bolden stepped down as NASA administrator. Ever since, an interim director by the name of Robert Lightfoot has filled Bolden's role. This means for 315 days, the agency has lacked a formal leader.

The situation is unprecedented. Never before has the agency experienced such a large gap between administrators. In the six decades the agency has existed, there have been ten transitions between NASA administrators, with an overall average gap of about 3.7 months.

In instances where the NASA administrator has stepped down with a new administration, the gap between resignation and Senate approval has never taken more than six months.

You might be wondering why this is such a big deal.

"The risk is that NASA is left out of the mix for budget increases and major White House cross-agency initiatives," Lori Garver, who served as deputy administrator at NASA from 2009 to 2013, told Ars Technica.

"Early political leadership at an agency like NASA is critical to shaping the priorities and budgets for the entire term of the president."

 

Oh.

To be fair, the delay is not entirely the Trump administration's fault. Yes, Trump did wait nearly eight months to name a nominee, which is unprecedented. However, the Senate has also taken three months to decide whether they will confirm Trump's nomination or not. 

The difference is, this indecision stems from the controversial nature of Trump's nominee.

Trump's controversial nominee

Congressman Jim Bridenstine has been criticized on both sides of the aisle for lacking the technical and management experience necessary for the head of NASA. Unlike past administrators, the former fighter pilot has no background in science or engineering.

"The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional who is technically and scientifically competent and a skilled executive," said Senator Bill Nelson at Bridenstine's hearing in November.

"More importantly, the administrator must be a leader who has the ability to unite scientists, engineers, commercial space interests, policymakers and the public on a shared vision for future space exploration."

"Frankly, congressman Bridenstine, I cannot see how you meet these criteria," Nelson added.

But that's not the only critique. Many Senators are worried about putting a climate denier at the head of an agency instrumental for climate research.

 

During his Senate hearing, Bridenstine said he "absolutely" believes in climate change, before adding some classic conservative talking points. When asked about the human impact on climate change, Bridenstine argued more studies are needed to determine whether human activity is in fact the leading cause.

Bridenstine must have missed the comprehensive scientific report released this year by the Trump administration that found "no convincing alternative explanation" for climate change. Whoops.

It's not just Democrats who find the candidate troubling, either. Senator Marco Rubio has also expressed reservations about Bridenstine's nomination, citing his "political baggage."

"I just think it could be devastating for the space program," Rubio told POLITICO.

"I would hate to see an administrator held up -- on [grounds of] partisanship, political arguments, past votes, or statements made in the past -- because the agency can't afford it and it can't afford the controversy," he added.

Which is exactly what has happened.

NASA needs direction

Phil Larsen, the Senior Advisor at the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Obama-era, is one person who believes NASA needs direction as soon as possible. Otherwise, he argues, the agency won't be able to answer critical questions about its future exploration plans.

"Think about what decisions could have been made with a leader in place over the last year," Larsen said to Ars Technica, "and what the upside of those decisions would be."

 

But the Trump administration is not powerless in this situation. Until an administrator is approved by Congress, the leader of the space council Vice President Mike Pence could step in and fill at least a part of this crucial leadership role.

"It is far from optimum and not what the Vice President wants to do, but he could provide marching orders to NASA," John Logsdon, a noted space historian, told Ars Technica.

"Robert Lightfoot is perfectly capable of implementing them. But that is not really the Space Council's job. The Senate has a nominee before it. He should be voted up or down so that NASA can have a leader linked to the current administration."