Back in October when then Presidental nominee Donald Trump first pledged to “drain the swamp” of American politics, most took him at his word that by this he meant corrupt officials and lobbyists. Those with hindsight may well point to Trump’s mission to drive well-qualified professionals from science roles as an indication that the ‘swamp’ he was referring to was a healthy and prosperous ecosystem which favours science. The brain-drain continues this month as the Trump administration looks to finally appoint a new NASA head, Republican Congressman Jim Bridenstine, who you will be unsurprised to learn has no background in science and doesn’t accept man as the key driving factor of climate change. Bridenstine has also clearly pushed the idea that NASA should drop “expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space” from its mission statement, instead diverting its attention to what he terms ‘space architecture’, and commercial and military interests.
The post of NASA head has been empty now for well over a year after Obama’s chief, Charles Bolden stepped down in January 2017, with Robert Lightfoot taking the reigns as acting administrator until his resignation in March 2018. This is the longest period NASA has been without an official head, over twice as long as the next closet period of vacancy. That isn’t the end of NASA’s current staffing woes. The positions of both second and third in command are also currently vacant. This means that when Bridenstein takes over he will be expected to pull the double-duty that Lightfoot has been over the past year. But many Democrats and Republicans are suggesting that NASA should be guided by a space-professional not a politician and that Bridenstine isn’t even capable of fulfilling one role at NASA. Bridenstine’s highest academic qualification is an MBA in business, hardly an accolade that suggests a potential head of a major space organisation. Like many NASA heads before him, he does have a military background, albeit at a much lower level, serving as an aviator in the United States Naval Reserve compared to the Generals who have filled the position before him. He also previously managed the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium. One would hardly suspect that the latter qualifies a person to go on to head NASA.
Bridenstine will certainly be the first member of Congress to hold the role as NASA head and one of the major concerns held by observers is the redirection of NASA’s objectives to suit political interests, with the goals of the Trump administration and some of the President’s own ideas of what the space agency should by doing looming ominously.
Bridenstine’s unclear position on climate change
So what is it that qualifies Bridenstine for the position? It could be, that like many other Trump science appointees, Bridenstine has been chosen for his role because a is an outspoken climate-change denier. In 2013 Bridenstine demanded that then-president Barrack Obama apologise to his Oklahoma constituents for allegedly spending 30 times the amount spent on extreme weather prediction “….this President spends 30 times as much money on global warming research as he does on weather forecasting and warning. For this gross misallocation, the people of Oklahoma are ready to accept the President’s apology….” A blatantly untrue assertion. He also went on to make the equally absurd claim that global warming had halted a decade ago. “Mr Speaker, global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.” As this was all during an appeal for better weather prediction funding, it strongly implies that the new head of NASA doesn’t, or at least didn’t in 2013, understand that extreme weather conditions and global climate are inexorably linked. Since 2013, Bridenstine has been fairly quiet on climate change, barring a few instances on social media when he has shared articles criticising “global warming alarmists”.
In a Senate hearing to confirm his appointment as NASA head, Bridenstine gave worryingly disconcerting answers to climate change questions. Rachel Licker, a climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, attended the November Senate hearing regarding Bridenstine’s appointment, noting his reluctance to be pinned down on the subject. “He did say that he agrees with the statement that 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is real and is causing devastating problems in the US,” Licker said. “That said, he missed an opportunity to confirm that human activity is the primary cause.”
It seems from the limited available evidence that Bridenstine holds the position that climate change is real but that man may not be it’s primary driver, meaning he joins Trump’s other science nominees; Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, the Department of Energy choice Rick Perry, and the Council on Environmental Quality Kathleen Hartnett in denying the scientific consensus on climate change. In this case, that possibility is of particular concern as
NASA’s role in cutting-edge research under threat?
One of the key elements of NASA’s current mission statement is climate observation, with 16 satellites plus instrumentation on the International space station directed towards the Earth monitoring the planet’s climate and a total of a tenth of the agency’s current budget of $1.96 billion spent on climate science. This devotion to climate science has faced some serious threats thus far into the Trump administration, but the harshed challenge may be yet to come. In Trump’s 2019 budget allocation passed to Congress, the president has proposed a 2% cut to NASA funding. This may not seem too catastrophic, but NASA is already severely underfunded and Trump- has also stated a clear desire to have NASA redirect it’s mission to sending astronauts back to the moon and establishing manned missions to Mars. Presumably, these endeavours will have to be funded by NASA’s preexisting budget. This is coupled with Trump’s increasing interest in the militarization of space, called for most specifically in his bizarre ‘space-force’ speech in March 2018. Clearly, this ‘baby-boomer’ interest of Trump’s harkens back to the space-race of the 1950s and 1960s shows how little he understands how much technology and scientific understanding has changed in the last fifty years.
It’s a move towards manned space-flight that Bridenstine has fully endorsed and will likely desire to fund. In a bill he drafted last year entitled the “American Space Renaissance Act” Bridenstine has made it clear that NASA’s efforts should no longer focus on gathering knowledge and cutting-edge research, but instead concentrate on space ‘architecture’ as reported by the American Institute of Physics. The 2017 document also sets out three new objectives that would form the core of a new “pioneering doctrine” for NASA.
(1) The expansion of the human sphere of influence throughout the Solar System.
(2) To be among those who first arrive at a destination in space and to open it for subsequent use and development by others.
(3) To create and prepare infrastructure precursors in support of the future use and development of space by others.
Unfortunately, this represents a move away from cutting-edge research and clearly harkens back to an age of early space exploration, pushed by men like Trump and Bridenstine because they simply aren’t qualified enough to understand cosmology and astronomy. It seems likely that from Trump’s 2019 budget proposal that the first programmes that will suffer under that new direction are five of NASA’s Earth science projects, WFIRST, NASA’s flagship astrophysics mission and NASA’s office of education. Many expect American to withdraw funding for the ISS by 2025, or at least severely limit it, which as mentioned above, currently gathers important climate data.
With a focus on recapturing past glories and military conquest, the future may be bleak for NASA’s scientific endeavours and for climate research in general.