Late last week, the White House announced that Oklahoma Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R) will serve as President Trump’s nomination for the next administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), according to a New York Times report. Previous administrators of NASA had backgrounds as scientists, engineers and astronauts, but if Bridenstine is appointed, he will be the first elected politician to hold the post, according to USA Today. This appointment would bring NASA more prominently into the political sphere and likely take a negative toll on the scientific integrity of the organization.
Bridenstine does have some qualifications for the job. He served as a Navy combat pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan and is currently a member of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. He also spent two years as the executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium, according to NPR. But a mere interest in space and aeronautics does not mean that he will serve as a successful administratorof NASA. A scientist or engineer would be more able to understand the feasibility of certain space missions, and they would also have the advantage of understanding the most urgent and imminent scientific discoveries that NASA should be concerned with.
Even so, Bridenstine has shared several objectives toward which he would like to drive NASA. He would like to reduce orbital debris and direct research toward exploiting resources on the moon to make space exploration less expensive. In addition to this, he supports the Orion program, which is developing a capsule that could take astronauts into deep space. He would also like to see private companies such as SpaceX and Blue Origin become more involved with NASA’s space exploration, and to increase the term of NASA’s administrator so that it is longer than the current four-year cycle. At the same time, he intends to bring NASA’s focus away from climate change research. Thus, it not Bridenstine’s qualifications, but the very fact that he is a politician, that would be detrimental to NASA’s research initiatives.
Regardless of Bridenstine’s political affiliations, the fact that he has a background in politics at all could drag the climate change debate into the walls of NASA. In a country where scientific data is sometimes disregarded concerning political opinion on climate change, NASA has been able to maintain the scientific nature of the issue because it collects a large amount of this data at centers such as the Goddard Institute for Space Studies. However, if NASA becomes more involved in the political sphere, the importance of this data could come under political scrutiny, and some of these centers might be shut down. By the same token, even if a state representative who served as a Democrat were assigned to the NASA post, this data might still be used to serve political purposes instead of scientific ones.
Florida senators agree that a politician might not be the best thing for NASA. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) told the New York Times that “the head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician,” and Sen. Marco Rubio (R) also noted that the appointment “could be devastating for the space program”. Both senators would like to see the Senate consider some other candidates for the job.
On NASA’s executive board, a politician would simply be out of place. The nature of NASA is to focus on research for the sake of knowledge and to explore space so that we can learn a little more about our planet and our universe. As far as climate is concerned, it is NASA’s job to collect data without any political bias, so that we can learn exactly what is happening to our planet and decide objectively what must be done. The introduction of a politically affiliated administrator would disrupt this scientific objectivity, and for this reason, NASA might be better served by a candidate with a stronger scientific background.
Alex Oliveira is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.