Opinion: Why I’m Kind of Crushing On Bridenstine Right Now

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NASA Chief Has Shown Humility, Grace Under Pressure, and Above All, Tenacity in the Face of Political Bullying.

If you’d have asked me to defend Jim Bridenstine as the nominee for NASA Administrator when it happened last April, I’d have told you where to shove it (in so many words… so. many. words.) I’d have railed about the guy. Granted, I knew nothing about him other than he was a Republican Congressman from an unabashedly red state. Also, the fact that he was a Trump Beeblebrox nominee who denied climate change set me off. I’d have been right about those two facts, but I’d have been on the wrong side of the argument. 

Jim Bridenstine speaking at a conference.

Jim Bridenstine speaking at a conference.

While Bridenstine did bash climate science during his tenure in Congress, he also helped advance space exploration with many significant legislative acts. I don’t understand how one can have the passion for space that Bridenstine showed in Congress while simultaneously denying scientific consensus surrounding climate change. Nonetheless, I’m not naive enough to think that politics had no part in it. 

The U.S. House of Representatives is a sesspool. Bridenstine won his Congressional seat in 2012. As a freshman Congressman coming into a term in opposition to a President who just wasted his opponent, you do what you have to do to make friends and influence people. Unfortunately, only Bridenstine knows for sure if he really changed his mind about climate change, or if he believed it all along and just did what he had to do. In either case, however, his stance on climate science has changed, and that’s a big thing—especially for a Republican from oil country.

The Case Against Climate Change

I’m not going to pussyfoot around here. The only people who are still speaking out against climate science are either taking money from oil interests, Evangelical Christians who believe that the Earth is only six-thousand years old, and people who just want to be on the team wearing the red hats. Everyone else in the world recognizes that climate change is a global crisis and that we’re out of time. 

See, the thing about the PR game is that you only have to put a little bit of doubt out there, then get enough people to shout about it. See Fox News. (Okay, you can say MSNBC, too, but it’s still a bit of a false equivalency.) All you need is one or two sub-par scientists who need a little cash or just want to be on T.V. As for YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter… Let’s just not even… Jesus! You don’t even need real scientists there and people will believe you!

Their weapons are often thought-terminating-clichés like, “Well, it’s just a theory.” or “God works in mysterious ways.” Make no mistake about it, folks, these are compliance techniques used by the best in the business. Thought-terminating clichés sound like proverbs. However, they stop you from thinking any further on the subject and make it easier for you to just go along with the program.

It’s Just a Theory

This is especially true of “Well, it’s just a theory.” That is complete and utter nonsense. The word “just” has no place in that sentence. You see, what the general masses think of as a “theory,” the scientific community thinks of as a hypothesis. Most people have an ignorant connotation of the word “theory.” 

In order to become a bona fide “theory,” an idea must pass years of rigorous scientific testing. It’s got to be reviewed by hundreds if not thousands of other scientists in the same field. It’s got to be tested over, and over, and over again. It has to have an overwhelming preponderance of evidence in its favor to be generally “accepted” by the scientific community. A real scientific theory is not just some educated guess that Doc-Effing-Brown came up with in his garage, for Chrissakes. 

Nevertheless, all the climate change deniers and the evolution deniers and the science deniers have to do is say those four little magic words, “It’s just a theory,” parade out a couple of quack or questionable scientists, and the entire Wal-Mart nation sings along in chorus. 

Still, You Can Change Your Mind.

Okay, here’s where I’m going to get all sunshine-and-rainbows-and-unicorns-and-Skittles on you. Because, despite the ridiculousness that has been the last three years of American politics, I’m hopeful. Maybe I’m completely off-base, or naive, or worse, but I like to imagine what it must have been like for Bridenstine to get the nod for NASA Administrator. 

You were a Navy Pilot. You’ve loved flying all your life. Space fascinates you, and you even directed the Tulsa Air and Space Museum for a time. Your biggest campaign contributors are aerospace companies and oil companies. You get elected to Congress, and your oil buddies expect you to come out against climate change.

Here’s where I have to switch perspective for just a moment, because this is mostly conjecture on my part, but it stands to reason that if you asked Jim Bridenstine if he had any religious affiliation, he’d not hesitate to claim Christianity. And when it comes to Republican politics, you can’t do nothin’ without the good Christian vote.

So you know it’ll play well with your conservative base voters and your campaign contributors, and you come out and say awful and untrue things about climate change. Sure, it’s not honorable, but I get it. You’re trying to gain as much influence in Congress as possible, and doing favors like speaking out against climate change really helps that cause. 

Then you get a job you’ve probably dreamt about since you were a little kid. You get to be in charge of NASA! 

A month later, you come out and reverse your position on climate change, stating the following at a town hall meeting: “I fully believe and know that the climate is changing. I also know that we humans beings are contributing to it in a major way. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. We’re putting it into the atmosphere in volumes that we haven’t seen, and that greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening, and we are responsible for it.”  

Now, as much as I’d like to believe that Bridenstine got to NASA, saw a metric-sh*t-ton of data pointing to the reality of climate change, and then changed his mind, I think he really knew it was there all along. 

You Can Know a Thing and Still Not Know It.

Colloquially, we call it mental-gymnastics. It’s how we humans cope when our behavior contradicts our core values or beliefs. We make up all kinds of complicated rationalizations for our behavior. Bridenstine knew what he had to do to survive in Congress. He said what he had to say, and he might have even believed it at the time, but the timing of his reversal makes me doubt it. However, let’s say he did actually believe it, then he changed his mind.

I’ve been there. I believed things when I was younger that I would slap myself for today. It’s okay to change your mind. It’s okay to learn and to grow. And whether Bridenstine really did change his mind or not doesn’t really matter. What matters is that people think he changed his mind. I mean, hell, it’s still working on me, even as I’m typing my cynical analysis of the methodology at play here. 

More Than Just a Flip-Flop

Look, I don’t care anymore about what Bridenstine said when he was a junior Congressman from Oklahoma. I’ve had to do things I’m not proud of to make ends meet. Here’s what I do care about:

Since he’s taken over NASA, Bridenstine positively handled Vice-President Pence cutting four years off of the Artemis deadline. He made tough decisions regarding leadership (the virtues of which remain to be seen) in order to meet those new demands. Bridenstine stuck to his guns in the Oval Office while his idiot boss grilled him about going straight to Mars in the middle of a photo op. Then he stood gracefully when Trump asked Michael Collins to contradict him at the photo-op. The NASA Administrator even stood up to the Idiot-in-Chief’s pestering and defended the agency’s plans to use the Moon as a testing ground for future missions to Mars. 

Bridenstine Being His Own Man

Recently, Bridenstine has shown even more balls by straight-up pissing off a couple of key Republican legislators that he may need to secure his agency’s funding. The issue centers on how we’re going to get the Orion spacecraft to Mars. 

This particular thorn is sticking in the side of one Richard Shelby—Republican Senator from Alabama. If you’re reading Space Porn, then you probably already know that Alabama, especially the northern part, is all about rockets. Huntsville, in fact, is known as “Rocket City.”  NASA has had a presence there forever, and good ol’ boy Senator Shelby has had a pet project in NASA’s Space Launch System for a long time now.

This wouldn’t really be a thing if Shelby didn’t chair the committee that decides NASA’s budget, but he does, so it is. 

Here’s the thing. The Space Launch System, designed for the Orion Spacecraft,  is utter boobery. It’s stupid expensive, and by the time it’s ready to fly, SpaceX will have a rocket that has a lot more capability for a lot less money per launch. But you can’t tell the people in Huntsville that. They want their NASA jobs, and they want to build that ridiculously expensive gub’ment rocket rather than doing what’s best for the actual space program. Shelby was reportedly irate after Bridenstine announced that NASA was considering private rockets for the program.

Bridenstine also angered both Republican Senators from Texas, including, of course, Ted Cruz, whom he endorsed for President over Trump. He announced—without advanced warning to either—that work on the new lunar lander project would be split between Alabama facilities and Johnson Space Center in Houston. Houston has traditionally handled such projects on its own. 

Bridenstine Says Politics Getting In the Way

So, I’ve quipped here before about the fact that Pence cutting four years off of the Artemis program is politically motivated. Such a move would coincide with the end of a (please God, No!) second Trump term. Rather than looking at that as a bad thing, Bridenstine appears to see it as an opportunity. After the VP made the announcement, Bridenstine talked a lot about how politics got in the way of progress when it comes to space exploration. He’s right, of course, regardless of which side of the aisle you prefer. Every four to eight years, leadership at NASA changes, as does the executive’s attitude toward the organization. 

Bridenstine and others have been quoted saying that if it weren’t for politics we’d already be on Mars. I don’t know if that’s true or not. It does, however, seem like a valid point when one looks at NASA’s human extra-planetary activity since the ’70s. We did a lot of important research on the Space Shuttle missions, and we still do a lot on the ISS, but we’re not even getting there on our own rockets anymore. 

Bridenstine, though imperfect, may be just the guy NASA needs to break through the political red tape and get us back to the Moon by 2024. And even if/when Trump loses in 2020, I hope Bridenstine sticks around for a bit, because I really think he wants Artemis to be his legacy.

Summing Up

I probably don’t agree with Bridenstine on everything. I’m not completely sure that he’s not helping some corporation to exploit the Moon’s resources, as some have alleged. On the other hand, I do hold to the hope that he’s found himself in his dream job, and that he really wants to achieve something great while he has it. For that alone, he deserves my respect. But even if that weren’t there, Jim Bridenstine would have my respect for having the courage to publicly change his mind about climate change. I always respect a man who can admit when he was wrong and step over to the right side of things.

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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