Trump Nominates Senate Staffer for NASA Deputy Administrator

President Donald J. Trump today nominated a long-time Senate staffer who has neither a technical nor scientific background to be the space agency’s deputy administrator.

James Morhard, who is currently the U.S. Senate’s Deputy Sergeant at Arms, was nominated for the position. The decision represents a defeat for NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who had publicly advocated on behalf of Dr. Janet Kavandi, a former astronaut, engineer and analytical chemist who is director of the NASA Glenn Research Center.

Morhard was previously “staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee, where he managed the Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies and the Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies,” the White House said in an announcement.

“Mr. Morhard began his career in the Secretary of the Navy’s Office of the Comptroller. He earned his B.S. in accounting from St. Francis University, M.B.A from George Washington University, and J.D. from Georgetown University,” the statement added.

The Appropriations Science Subcommittee where Morhard was staff director has jurisdiction over NASA and NOAA, making him quite familiar with the budgets of the two agencies.

Morhard previously was a senior aide to the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). He survived a 2010 plane crash that claimed Stevens’ life and seriously injured former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe.

Bridenstine’s reaction to the nomination was muted in a statement posted on the NASA website.

“Today, the President announced his intent to nominate James Morhard as Deputy Administrator of NASA.

“Morhard is the United States Senate Deputy Sergeant at Arms. Prior to this, he was the Staff Director of the Senate Appropriations Committee. During his tenure there, he ran the Senate Commerce, Justice, State subcommittee that included all NOAA programs, and the Military Construction subcommittee where public/private partnerships were first used for military housing.

“This administration is committed to American leadership in space, and I look forward to working with Mr. Morhard upon his confirmation.”

Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who represented Oklahoma in the House of Representatives for five years before becoming NASA Administrator, does not have an engineering or scientific background. Kavandi would bring such experience to the post of deputy administrator.

Morhard’s nomination will now go to a Senate whose Democratic members had been skeptical about the wisdom of putting Bridenstine into NASA’s top job. That opposition stemmed from Bridenstine’s lack of an engineering or scientific background, his skepticism about global warming, and fears about politicizing an agency that has enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

The nomination comes at a time when NASA could be facing some difficult decisions about its Commercial Crew Program. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued on Wednesday said the space agency could face a gap in sending crews to the International Space Station due to delays by Boeing and SpaceX in fielding new spacecraft.

NASA could be forced to decide whether to take greater risks with the lives of its astronauts flying commercial crew vehicles. If Morhard is confirmed, the two top slots in the agency would be filled with politicians from Capitol Hill.