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NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, touts bipartisanship after divisive debate

Alan Boyle
Vice President Mike Pence stands behind NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine after his swearing-in ceremony. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON — Just hours after his resignation from the House took effect, Jim Bridenstine was sworn in today as NASA’s 13th administrator and signaled that he’d try to mend the partisan divisions that marked his nomination.

Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the National Space Council, officiated for the swearing-in ceremony here at NASA Headquarters.

The three NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station played supporting roles during a live space-to-ground video hookup that was only slightly delayed by a glitch in the connection. (“Did we pay the bill?” Pence joked during the wait.)

Pence took the occasion to trumpet the Trump administration’s interest in space exploration, as he has at every space-related event at which he’s appeared. Today he said he was honored to usher in “a new chapter of renewed American leadership in space with the swearing-in of the newest administrator of NASA.”

“You can be assured that you have an advocate and an ally and a champion in President Donald Trump,” Pence told the audience, which consisted mostly of NASA employees but also included VIPs such as White House aide Kellyanne Conway and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Soon afterward, Pence administered the oath of office to Bridenstine as he was surrounded by his family. When Bridenstine took the podium, he offered thanks to Robert Lightfoot, who is retiring after spending a record-setting 15 months as NASA’s acting administrator. He also paid tribute to his colleagues in Congress, where he served as a member of the House from 2013 until today.

Bridenstine made sure to include Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Colo., a fellow member of the House Subcommittee on Space, in his litany of thanks.

“Your bipartisan — and that’s important in space, it’s been bipartisan — your bipartisan leadership has been critical to our country,” Bridenstine told his former congressional colleagues.

The comment seemed to serve as an answer to one of the criticisms most frequently leveled against Bridenstine during the Senate’s consideration of his nomination: that it’d be inappropriate to put a politician in charge of what’s considered one of the U.S. government’s least political agencies. Bridenstine is the first elected official to go on to lead NASA.

Bridenstine also faced criticism over harsh comments he made about President Barack Obama’s climate policies, and political statements that denigrated same-sex marriage and LGBTQ protections.

During his confirmation hearings, Bridenstine acknowledged that industrial activities are having an effect on Earth’s climate, although he and his critics in the Senate quibbled over how big that effect was. He also told senators that he’d make sure everyone at NASA will “be able to excel based on the merits of their work exclusively.”

Last week, the Senate confirmed Bridenstine’s nomination on a party-line 50-49 vote — an unusually close tally for the NASA post. In contrast, the administrators chosen by Obama (Charlie Bolden) and President George W. Bush (Sean O’Keefe and Mike Griffin) were confirmed by unanimous votes.

Bridenstine is likely to make a strong push toward commercializing space activities in low Earth orbit and energizing exploration beyond Earth orbit, in line with the policy initiatives laid out by Pence and the National Space Council.

As the head of an agency with a $20 billion annual budget and 18,000 employees, Bridenstine will have to manage the repeatedly delayed ramp-ups for the James Webb Space Telescope, the Orion deep-space capsule and the heavy-lift Space Launch System. He’ll also preside over next year’s 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

In a nod to past glories, the new administrator pledged to ensure that America “remains the pre-eminent spacefaring nation in the world.”

“I will do my best to serve our storied agency to the utmost of my abilities as we reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humankind,” Bridenstine said.

During today’s space-to-ground video link, NASA astronaut Drew Feustel emphasized the continuity of the space program.

“As an astronaut for the last 18 years, I’ve seen us progress from the days of shuttle and the retirement of that spacecraft, and embarking on a new endeavor after we had completed the space station, now to move into commercial crew opportunities and also with NASA’s development of the Orion spacecraft that we hope will take us off to distant destinations — beginning, we hope, with the moon and eventually on to Mars and wherever that might lead us,” Feustel told Pence. “We’re really excited about that.”

NASA’s current schedule calls for a new space complex to be built in lunar orbit in the mid-2020s, followed by crewed journeys to Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine gets hugs from his family after being sworn in. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Feustel also put in a pitch for Earth science, which hasn’t drawn nearly as much enthusiasm from the Trump administration. “It’s important as humans to understand what’s happening to the Earth; and this [space station] is a great platform to do that,” Feustel said.

Not all of the rhetoric during the swearing-in ceremony was high-flown. Toward the end of the ceremony, Pence — who once served as Indiana’s governor — asked Feustel about his enthusiasm for Indy 500 racing.

“There are not many racing vehicles that I am not a fan of,” Feustel said. “But yeah, I’ve been watching races every weekend, getting some great shots from up above, and folks can look forward to another one of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway here coming up in a couple of weeks.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what, Andrew, I know that all those race car drivers would be a little jealous of the speed that you’re lapping right now,” Pence replied.

For the record, the space station circles Earth at roughly 17,000 mph. So, ladies and gentlemen — including Administrator Bridenstine, who’s a former naval aviator and rocket plane racer — start your engines.

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