The Senate confirmed U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., as NASA’s administrator today in a nail-biting vote along party lines.
In a statement, Bridenstine said he was honored to be confirmed.
“I am humbled by this opportunity, and I once again thank President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence for their confidence,” he said. “I look forward to working with the outstanding team at NASA to achieve the president’s vision for American leadership in space.”
Bridenstine, 42, has represented his Tulsa-area district since 2013. During his time in Congress, he’s been a strong supporter of space commercialization. He’s the principal sponsor of the American Space Renaissance Act, which aims to beef up the military and commercial side of the space program.
His background includes service as a naval aviator and a stint as the director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium. For a time, he also led a flying team in the short-lived Rocket Racing League.
Twitter Moments: NASA welcomes Jim Bridenstine
The White House named Bridenstine as Trump’s pick for NASA’s top post last September, sparking objections from senators such as Florida’s Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio.
“The NASA administrator should be a consummate space professional … not a politician,” Nelson, a Democrat, argued during the final hours of debate this week.
Rubio, a Republican, initially voiced similar qualms, saying last September that putting Bridenstine in what’s traditionally a nonpartisan post could be “devastating to the space program.” Another potential consideration might have been that Bridenstine — who leans toward the conservative Tea Party side of the GOP spectrum — criticized Rubio during the 2016 presidential campaign.
But when NASA’s acting administrator, longtime civil servant Robert Lightfoot, announced that he’d be retiring at the end of this month, Rubio said leaving the space agency without a confirmed leader would be worse.
In the end, Rubio joined other Republicans in voting for Bridenstine, resulting in a 50-49 tally. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., missed the vote due to illness.
Other knocks against Bridenstine included questions about his management of the Tulsa museum, statements that he made questioning the extent of human-caused effects on global climate, and his views on LGBTQ issues.
Those issues faded from the spotlight, however, after Wednesday’s vote to go ahead with final consideration of Bridenstine’s nomination. Most of the discussion in the last hours of Senate debate focused instead on the choice of CIA Director Mike Pompeo to become Trump’s new secretary of state.
Bridenstine is expected to resign from the House, get sworn in as administrator and take over at NASA well before Lightfoot’s April 30 retirement.
Update for 1:38 p.m. PT April 19: Here’s a sampling of reactions to the confirmation:
Blue Origin CEO Bob Smith: “I’m looking forward to working with him. It’s an exciting new era for NASA,” Smith told GeekWire. “He came and visited our Florida facility. We’ve had a couple of exchanges. Seems like he’s coming up to speed quickly.”
Outgoing Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot: “I’m very pleased to welcome Jim Bridenstine to NASA,” Lightfoot said in a statement. “He joins our great agency at a time when we are poised to accomplish historic milestones across the full spectrum of our work. Jim now takes the reins of this agency and its talented and dedicated workforce. I’m looking forward to him building on our great momentum and sharing our many strengths to help us make the next giants leaps on behalf of humanity.”
Planetary Society executive director Bill Nye: “Congratulations to Mr. Bridenstine on his confirmation as NASA administrator,” Nye said in a statement. “We look forward to working with him to explore space, advance space science, and search for life on other worlds.”
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas: “NASA is one of the most storied civilian agencies in the federal government,” Smith noted in a statement. “Its accomplishments are many and its missions continue to inspire millions of Americans young and old. It also has daunting challenges to overcome and new, complex missions to undertake. The Senate has rightfully approved Jim Bridenstine’s nomination.”