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NASA's acting chief to retire even as Congress has yet to confirm Trump's nominee

  • March 12, 2018


NASA’s Atlas V rocket blasted off Thursday from Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying another of the world’s most advanced weather satellites for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (March 1)

WASHINGTON — NASA Acting Administrator Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. is retiring April 30 even as President Trump’s permanent choice to lead the agency remains stuck in Congress.

Lightfoot, who started in 1989 at the Marshall Center in Huntsville, Ala., as a test engineer, has spent 14 months as the acting administrator for NASA. His tenure would have been considerably shorter but the Senate has yet to confirm Trump nominee James Bridenstine, a GOP congressman from Oklahoma.

On Monday, Lightfoot sent a “bittersweet” goodbye in a note to 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.  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.”

Lightfoot said he plans to work with the White House “on a smooth transition to the new administrator.”

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., thanked Lightfoot “for his many years of outstanding service and leadership at NASA,” and he prodded the White House to “nominate a space professional for NASA administrator who will actually garner strong bipartisan support.”

Nelson strongly opposes Bridenstine, saying he’s a divisive figure whose presence could impede the bipartisan support necessary for NASA’s long-term agenda to expand space exploration.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on a party-line vote narrowly approved sending his name to the full floor for confirmation. But he doesn’t appear to have the votes for approval yet.

The delay is infuriating some Republican House colleagues of Bridenstine, not only because he’s a political ally but also out of concern that NASA cannot fully handle its complex charge without a permanent administrator at the helm. 

“It is always a value to have the person the president wants in this position and I think that would be important for us all,” Lightfoot said. “But I can tell you for the past year I’ve had no trouble getting access to the people I’ve needed to have access to.”

More: Pence calls for return to moon, blasts ‘abdication’ by Obama of U.S. leadership in space

More: Already facing uphill climb, Trump’s pick to run NASA facing stiffer political headwinds

The lack of a permanent administrator comes at a pivotal point for NASA.

Trump has placed new emphasis on the agency’s importance by reviving the National Space Council headed by Vice President Mike Pence, announcing a re-pivot to the moon, and proposing the privatization of the International Space Station by 2025.

In addition, missions to develop the powerful Space Launch System designed to take astronauts to Mars within 20 years, develop a network of private rockets to ferry passengers to the space lab and launch the James Webb Space Telescope are approaching key milestones..

Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Ca., who sits on the House Science, Space and Technology, committee, blasted senators for their “arrogance” in not approving Bridenstine, a commercial space advocate who has been endorsed by prominent astronauts such as Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

“This is the product of a couple of senators who are bullheaded and couple of senators who are basically watching out for their own little domain rather than what’s good for the overall country,” Rohrbacher said without using names.

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