The White House announcement of the nomination of Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R- OK) for NASA Administrator drew some immediate and rather surprising (to me, anyway) reactions. Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL), whose state is critically involved in America’s space program, both questioned Bridenstine’s appointment. Sen. Nelson believes the space agency needs “a space professional” to run it; Sen. Rubio put forth that the job of NASA Administrator has traditionally been non-political, arguing that appointing a politician to the job will work towards destroying the bipartisan goodwill he claims the space program has traditionally enjoyed.
Let us examine some of these contentions and consider what qualities a “good” NASA Administrator must have. One of the first things to recognize about the job is that the Administrator is appointed by the President and therefore, works for the President. The heads of federal agencies do not set policy – they implement it. That said, it is true that NASA Administrators tend to have a bit more influence on policy than most other agencies, but mostly because as representatives of a technical entity, they deal with issues in which other administration officials are not expected to be conversant. The newly reconstituted National Space Council chaired by Vice President Pence will oversee our national space policy and it will set no policy path that does not have the full approval of the President.
The NASA Administrator’s job is to keep the agency running and funded while at the same time, implementing specific policy directions given by the President. Does such a job description require a “space professional” as Senator Nelson claims? Since its inception, NASA has had eleven administrators (I exclude from this discussion the “acting administrators” because these people held the job for shorter times as caretakers until a permanent administrator could be named). Past administrators have had a wide variety of expertise, backgrounds and temperaments, yet some common threads emerge. Glennan, Paine, Beggs, Goldin and Griffin were all engineers by training but each had considerable executive experience in industry and government. Fletcher and Frosch had degrees in physics, but their work experience was almost entirely as engineers and managers. O’Keefe was trained as a naval engineer, but became a career government bureaucrat; when he took over the reins at NASA, he famously described himself as a “bean-counter” (which was exactly what the then-disastrous International Space Station program needed).
Jim Webb was a former Marine Corps Reserve pilot, a lawyer, a federal bureaucrat and arguably, the greatest administrator NASA ever had. True enough, during the Apollo program, Webb was provided with abundant resources to carry out his mission, but one should note he was also given a monumental task, one that could have easily turned into a complete disaster – and indeed, with the Apollo 1 fire, almost did. Webb was a powerhouse of management competence, a guy who knew his technical limitations and was secure enough to seek and obtain solid advice from competent engineers like George Low and Robert Gilruth. But just as importantly, Webb could explain problems and progress to members of the Executive and the Congress – key people needed to approve the resources and political backing to complete the job. Webb kept the Apollo funding flowing and he completed the assigned task. The glorious NASA that exists in the mind of the public is largely the creation of Jim Webb and the people he hired during the 1960s.
The last two NASA Administrators, Richard Truly and Charles Bolden – both pilots and former astronauts – arguably were unsuited for the Administrator’s job. Truly is a former Shuttle astronaut who held the reins at NASA during the first half of the George H. W. Bush administration, a critical period in the history of the agency that was undergoing a major crisis of confidence in both its human and robotic spaceflight programs. The Shuttle was flying again after the long post-Challenger hiatus, but little progress had been made on Space Station Freedom, the principal program for future human spaceflight. The robotic program was equally troubled – the Mars Observer spacecraft had been mysteriously lost and the Hubble Space Telescope was found to have been launched with “blurred vision,” caused by an incorrectly ground main mirror.
But Truly’s biggest failure (which led to his sacking) was foot-dragging on President Bush’s Space Exploration Initiative, an attempt to set into motion a new strategic direction for the civil space program by returning to the Moon and undertaking a mission to Mars. Truly disliked the idea, mostly because he saw it as destroying his beloved Shuttle program and he thought that the agency was incapable of the added work, given its problems with Space Station Freedom. The tepid agency response to Bush’s bold space initiative infuriated the President, who fired Truly and replaced him with Dan Goldin (whose reign then proceeded to create new idiocies to replace those perpetrated by Truly).
Charles Bolden faithfully executed the policy path desired by President Obama and his Presidential Science Advisor, John Holdren – the unilateral cancellation of the Vision for Space Exploration (a “bipartisan” space policy if there ever was one) and set a Potemkin Village “Mission to Mars” in its place. So, in a strict bureaucratic sense, Bolden might be considered a “good administrator” in that he faithfully implemented the policy of the President he served. But what remains of the once-glorious agency after eight years of Bolden is almost too painful to contemplate. With the Shuttle retired, we have no American means to get astronauts to and from a space station that we largely paid for and built. Plans for future human missions beyond LEO are meaningless and inconsequential “make work” projects with little value and no lasting spacefaring legacy. Bolden actively promoted the fraudulent “Mission to Mars” mythology created within the agency, a policy that prevented the Congress and the public from knowing they had lost what was once (and was still being) taken for granted – a robust space program that was going somewhere and doing something significant.
So the job that Jim Bridenstine takes on (Senate willing) is anything but a cakewalk. A Bridenstine-led NASA should carefully re-assemble a competent technical base at NASA – replace the lost core of engineering excellence that has died, left or retired over the past decade. The new Administrator will oversee the forthcoming transition to “commercial crew” in which industry will provide transportation to and from the ISS for American astronauts. Most importantly, the new administrator will guide the agency into a new direction for human spaceflight beyond LEO.
That new direction may come very soon. The Space Council meets this month for the first time. Assuming that sanity prevails, both the fake “Mission to Mars” and the gimmicky “cislunar proving ground” ideas will be dropped. What’s required now is a sustained, incremental approach to spaceflight beyond LEO, an architecture culminating in a return to the Moon and the processing of its resources to fuel a permanent space-based transportation system. His published writings clearly indicate how intricately Jim Bridenstine understands these needs. Through his sponsorship of the American Space Renaissance Act, Bridenstine has demonstrated not only a clear, long-range vision, but also a deep technical understanding of and interest in what is required and what is possible for America’s civil space program.
I welcome the nomination of Jim Bridenstine for the job of NASA Administrator – far from being “a partisan pick,” he is an inspired choice. Once confirmed, Bridenstine will knowingly walk into an incredibly difficult situation, one with significant pitfalls and detours along the way, yet he has done his homework. He understands the situation and knows what needs to be done. A “politician?” Certainly. Who better to speak to members of the Congress in an understandable manner about the needs of the agency? Politics is the means by which Americans conduct public business. To put it another way, what agency head in Washington is not a politician at some level? Not a “space professional”? Jim Bridenstine has demonstrated through his background, writings and speeches that he fully understands what our national space agency needs and what should be required from our space program. I contend that Jim Bridenstine understands these things much better than many of the “space professionals” I deal with on a daily basis.
To Senators Rubio and Nelson: Do you want a meaningful, productive and successful national space program? If so, you will support the President’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine for NASA Administrator. However, if you are content with the debilitating and pointless status quo – the stagnation and withering of NASA – then it is understandable that you might want someone other than Jim Bridenstine at the helm. That is the choice at hand.