President Donald Trump’s choice to head NASA faces a contentious Senate confirmation over his past comments dismissive of global warming as a man-made problem.
Trump has tapped three-term Republican Rep. Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma to oversee the space agency, a job that often goes to astronauts or scientists. If confirmed, Bridenstine would be the first member of Congress to lead the agency during its nearly 60-year existence.
Both Republicans and Democrats forecast a battle over the nomination.
“I think he faces a tough fight because he’s been outspoken in some areas that having nothing to do with NASA,” said Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who has called talk that humans are responsible for global warming a hoax. “I’m talking about global warming and these things. They’re just offended by his past positions.”
Bridenstine, who is the former executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium, said in a 2013 speech on the House floor: “Global temperatures stopped rising 10 years ago. Global temperature changes, when they exist, correlate with sun output and ocean cycles.”
Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said Bridenstine’s comments “indicates not just a lack of scientific background but a lack of scientific awareness and credibility.”
NASA studies climate change and emphasizes that climate-warming trends are “extremely likely due to human activities.”
“The small amount of dissent tends to come from a few vocal scientists who are not experts in the climate field or do not understand the scientific basis of long-term climate processes,” NASA says in a section of its website dedicated to frequently asked questions.
Bridenstine, who declined to be interviewed during the confirmation process, issued a statement Wednesday saying it’s an honor to be nominated.
“Should I be confirmed by the United States Senate, I will work with all diligence to achieve the president’s vision for America’s leadership in space,” Bridenstine said.
NASA’s outsized role in the Florida economy with more than 140,000 people working there in the aerospace industry guarantees that the state’s two senators, Republican Marco Rubio and Democrat Bill Nelson, will play a crucial role on the nomination. The two were cautious and less than enthusiastic in their initial reaction to Trump’s choice.
“NASA is at a critical juncture in history, and it is important that its mission remain free of politics and partisanship. I want to be without reservation because the space industry is too important to Florida’s economy,” Rubio said. “The agency cannot afford controversy or a delay in the nomination process.”
Nelson was even more skeptical, telling Politico: “The head of NASA ought to be a space professional, not a politician.” Nelson is the top Democrat on the committee that will consider Bridenstine’s nomination.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, told The Associated Press he expects to support Bridenstine and knows the congressman understands “the great passion for space policy” from members of the committee and the Senate.
The 42-year-old Bridenstine, who serves in the Oklahoma Air National Guard, is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan.
At a conference earlier this year, Bidenstine spoke of the need for NASA to work extensively with commercial space companies. He called for altering a regulatory environment that he said has hindered the commercial space industry. He also called for more federal investment in an office within the Federal Aviation Administration that promotes commercial space transportation.
“It is well past time for commercial space transportation to be a priority of the U.S. federal government. In fact, it should be a national security priority for this great nation,” Bridenstine said.
Bridenstine also said he supported space flights to the moon and eventually sending humans to Mars.