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Robert Lightfoot
Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot, shown here in a 2015 photo, says he’ll retire in April. (NASA / MSFC Photo / Fred Deaton)

Robert Lightfoot, who has been serving as NASA’s acting administrator since the start of the Trump administration, says he’ll be retiring at the end of next month.

His departure after more than a year of caretaker duty could open the power vacuum in space policy even wider — or force a resolution.

President Donald Trump nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., to fill NASA’s top post last September, but his nomination has languished because Senate confirmation is in doubt. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is said to be a key opponent, claiming that Bridenstine would be too much of a political choice for a post that’s not traditionally held by a politician.

For what it’s worth, Rubio was a target of Bridenstine’s criticism during 2016’s presidential primary season.

Other presidentially appointed posts at NASA — including deputy administrator and chief financial officer — are still unfilled as well.

In a NASA status report distributed by SpaceRef, Lightfoot is quoted as saying he’ll retire April 30 but didn’t specifically explain the timing for his departure. He turns 55 this year.

“I will work with the White House on a smooth transition to the new administrator,” Lightfoot said.

Lightfoot began his NASA as a test engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama in 1989, and served as Marshall’s center director from 2009 to 2012. He became associate administrator in 2012. That made him NASA’s highest-ranking civil servant — and the natural choice for the caretaker role when Donald Trump became president and President Barack Obama’s administrator, Charles Bolden, resigned.

The NASA statement quoted from Lightfoot’s message to space agency employees.

“I cannot express enough my gratitude to the entire NASA team for the support during my career and especially the last 14 months as your acting administrator,” he said. “The grit and determination you all demonstrate every day in achieving our missions of discovery and exploration are simply awe-inspiring.  I leave NASA blessed with a career full of memories of stunning missions, cherished friendships, and an incredible hope for what is yet to come.”

He said each employee has a part in writing the 60-year-old space agency’s history. “I’ve written my part and now the pen is in your hands – each one of you,” Lightfoot said.

NASA quietly named Steve Jurczyk acting associate administrator earlier this month.

Lightfoot drew praise from Phil Larson, who served as a space policy adviser in the Obama White House and is now an assistant dean at the University of Colorado’s College of Engineering and Applied Science in Boulder.

“Robert is a true public servant and was great to work with,” Larson told GeekWire during a text exchange. “He served NASA’s interests well, and his decades of experience and steady hand during tumultuous times will be missed.”

Larson said that Lightfoot’s imminent retirement serves as a reminder that “NASA and its more than 17,000 civil servants remain leaderless.”

“The White House and Senate need to figure this out and get a leader confirmed – now,” he said.

In a statement, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also paid tribute to Lightfoot.

“The country owes Robert a debt of gratitude for his many years of outstanding service and leadership at NASA,” Nelson said. “He’ll surely be missed, but I’m confident that there are a number of highly qualified individuals at the agency who can assume his role in the interim and continue the great work being done there to get us to Mars.”

Nelson signaled that he’d continue to oppose Bridenstine’s nomination.

“Longer term, the White House needs to nominate a space professional for NASA administrator who will actually garner strong bipartisan support,” the senator said. “The current nominee doesn’t have the votes.”

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