Jim Bridenstine(Credit: United States Congress/Getty/jamesbenet)
Astronauts beware: President Donald Trump picked Congressman James Bridenstine to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Though he still awaits confirmation in the Senate, the Oklahoma Republican with no background in the hard sciences seems an odd choice; Bridenstine’s most relevant experience is his tenure as executive director of the Tulsa Air & Space Museum & Planetarium.
What might we expect from Bridenstine as NASA administrator? Bridenstine’s politics are fairly in line with most Republicans’ nowadays — which is to say, he’s a far-right, pro-limited government, climate science skeptic. In a 2016 interview he said the climate “has always changed,” pointing to “periods of time long before the internal combustion engine when the Earth was much warmer than it is today.” He currently serves on the the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, whose GOP chairman has called on Trump to cease all of NASA’s climate change studies.
Bridenstine is against gay marriage, against gun control, against regulating greenhouse gas emissions, in favor of repealing Obamacare, against a woman’s right to choose, and against any kind of tax increases even on the wealthy. In short, he’s against anything that might stop the ceaseless redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich, or anything that might question free-market fundamentalism. His short political career demonstrates a total lack of ability to form any independent opinion not preordained by the conservative billionaire-funded think-tanks that promote the decrepit political ideology to which he adheres. Hence, like most fundamentalists, he is the antithesis of a scientist.
Unsurprisingly, Bridenstine is very interested in privatizing NASA, a right-wing wet dream for years now. One wonders if this was an independently formed opinion of his, or if he is doing the bidding of his funders; over the course of his political career, he’s raised $89,000 from the defense and aerospace industry — precisely the industry that stands to benefit from the privatization and commercialization of space.
You can’t get away with literally privatizing an entire federal agency — too many would cry foul — but you can defang the entire operation and outsource most of theagency’s functions. This is what is currently happening to Los Alamos National Laboratory. And it’s also why NASA started using SpaceX and Orbital ATK to shuttle supplies to the International Space Station (thanks, Obama). Bridenstine subscribes to the conservative ethos: Don’t question the logic that the free market can do better, even when that logic explodes on the launchpad.
But while the commercialization of ISS resupply missions is recent, the privatization of NASA has been a long time coming. That’s because its rockets, or at least some of their components, have been manufactured by private companies for years. Some science missions have even had private contractors manage them. It just goes to show that NASA has always been a bit of a hybrid organization: part giant subsidy to the aerospace industry, part public science organ.
A democratic NASA led by scientists, for scientists, would probably have far fewer manned missions and International Space Stations and far more robot missions — as robots are much better and much cheaper at producing great science. To put that in context: the International Space Station — which, aside from housing the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, has produced little in the way of science — is the most expensive object ever built at $150 billion, $58 billion of which came via NASA. The Hubble Space Telescope, perhaps the richest scientific instrument in history in terms of astronomy research produced, cost $1.5 billion; the New Horizons mission that photographed Pluto and Charon in unprecedented detail cost half that, at $700 million.
Why does the privatization of space matter? The answer to that really depends on what you believe NASA is. If you believe that NASA is a giant subsidy to aerospace and military defense contractors like Boeing, SpaceX and Northrop Grumman, and you think the point of government is to take public money (and democratic control over it) and put that money in private, unaccountable hands, then privatizing large swaths of NASA presumably sounds like a great thing. If you think the agency is about science and engineering in the public interest, then privatizing large chunks of it is a phenomenally stupid idea — as the private sector is by its nature incapable of producing “science” that isn’t directly designed to fatten profit margins. The idea of “private” science is inherently absurd; science is by definition in the public interest.