Thoughts on the Job of NASA Administrator

NASA administrators, past and future. What makes a good one?

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.

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18 Responses to Thoughts on the Job of NASA Administrator

  1. H. Spilk says:

    I generally think your summary is quite good Paul. I’m not sure I would be quite so charitable with Bolden. I’d prefer if Bridenstine had a little more political experience as well as some executive management experience. I totally agree that what NASA does not need is a space professional, particularly anyone who has been involved in NASA for the last dozen years. In fact whoever becomes NASA Administrator needs to steer clear of any advice coming from the NASA space professionals who have created the disaster the space program has now become.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-steer clear of any advice coming from the NASA space professionals-

      Having heard this kind of “blow it all up and start over” talk for years from the Ayn-Rand-in-Space crowd I have to state that advocating for such chaos creation as a “need” is criminal. A common factor in the destruction of organizations, small business, corporations, nations, and empires throughout history. it is often the prelude and excuse for piratical theft.

      The very best quote on this I have ever read, and a quote which is often abridged and misused, comes from that guy Santayana:

      “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

      You have to troubleshoot a system, fix what is broken, and tune it for maximum efficiency. Taking a hammer to it is like a child throwing a tantrum.

  2. Vladislaw says:

    “To Senators Rubio and Nelson: Do you want a meaningful, productive and successful national space program? ”

    I think Nelson wants the “monster rocket” funded at all costs.

    • billgamesh says:

      Bridenstine also wants the SLS funded.
      If your comment is inferring otherwise it is of course completely misleading.

      True space enthusiasts (not the NewSpace libertarian posers) understand the SLS is the only Super Heavy Lift Vehicle presently being built and is the “Obi-wan Kenobi rocket”: the only hope for Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit (HSF-BEO).

  3. Thanks for your perspective on this Dr. Spudis.

    I also welcome the nomination of Jim Bridenstine– especially because he recognizes the importance of exploiting the Moon’s polar ice resources in order to enhance our abilities in the New Frontier.

    While I don’t think President Trump has much interest in America’s space program, I believe the opposite is true of Vice President, Mike Pence. So I also welcome Pence as chair of the National Space Council.

    I suspect that Pence and Bridestine will be the driving forces behind NASA’s human spaceflight policy. Hopefully, their primary agenda will focus NASA on utilizing propellant producing water depots and the mining of lunar ice resources in order to establish a permanent human presence on the surface of the Moon in the 2020s and a similar human presence on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.

    I’d also like to see immediate and serious NASA funding for large lunar cargo vehicles capable deploying large and heavy payloads to the lunar surface and also funding for reusable crew landers.


    • jebowenag79 says:

      “Propellant depots . . . mining of lunar ice . . . like to see immediate and serious NASA funding for large lunar cargo vehicles capable deploying large and heavy payloads to the lunar surface and also funding for reusable crew landers.”

      Absolutely. If the NASA development can be combined with multi-vendor procurement, we will end up with not just projects and programs, but with entire industries. Obviously, there is a research and testing phase to all of these objectives, raising the Technology Readiness Levels. But I’m hoping Administrator Bridenstine is on board with the idea of providing leadership in the form of top level requirements, payment for milestones, sharing of financing requirements, intellectual property to the commercial firm, etc. Good things in store.

    • billgamesh says:

      “-a similar human presence on the surface of Mars in the 2030s.”

      I never cease to be amazed at space advocates who purportedly support a lunar return but always include Mars in their argument. These two places are not and should never be discussed as if they are in some way common features of a unified plan. Mars is, like LEO, a dead end in regards to space exploration. Mars has cursed the space program since the end of Apollo as the place to go next when it was actually the place that kept NASA from going anywhere for the next 50 years.

      It can never be said enough: the Moon is the prize we never should have taken our eyes off of and Mars is the profound mistake that must be corrected.

      • Establishing a human presence on the surface of the Moon should be NASA’s priority. But there’s no logical reason to confine humanity’s extraterrestrial presence solely to the surface of the Moon after a permanent human presence has been established there.

        The Moon is the key to opening up the rest of the solar system to permanent human habitation.


  4. billgamesh says:

    1. Abandon the soon-to-die-of-old-age-space-station-to-nowhere and the associated commercial cargo and crew dead end LEO programs.

    2. Fund expansion of SLS core production at Michoud and associated hardware to support 6 to 8 launches per year.

    3. Initiate rapid development of both wet workshop and pressure-fed booster iterations of the SLS along with robot lunar landers.

    If Musk and Bezos want to build landers they can be part of the second space age and if not they can continue with their hobby projects as they see fit.

  5. jebowenag79 says:

    Thanks very much for that! I laughed out loud on reading that some were worried Bridenstine would sully a NASA landscape previously untouched by politics.

    I look forward to Congressman Bridenstine’s new role.

  6. Richard Wayne says:

    Marcel wrote:
    “I’d also like to see immediate and serious NASA funding for large lunar cargo vehicles capable deploying large and heavy payloads to the lunar surface and also funding for reusable crew landers.”

    I think we’ve been through this not too long ago. I don’t think NASA will be getting any sizeable funding increases anytime soon. I don’t think NASA will be or should be developing any more big new vehicles, not directly, not when they only require known technologies. Others like Mr. Musk are proving to be far more effective at far less cost. NASA should follow the model that the rest of the government does, and find a commercial supplier to provide services with specified performance on an agreed upon schedule.

    NASA should be directly involved when it comes to new research and developing new technology.

    I don’t think NASA designs, builds or operates the Twin Otters, DC-3s, or C-130s that are used to conduct Antarctic research. They usually book their researchers on commercially operated transportation.

    As far as a lot of money for big new systems, that will come only if someone is interested in investing in the capabilities. I doubt that someone is primarily the US government. Maybe commercial interests will invest with expectation of an ROI?

    • Paul Spudis says:

      It’s not a question of how much money we give NASA — it’s a matter of how we choose to spend what they do get.

      The idea that we should “turn over” responsibility for spaceflight to the “private sector” (which is not really any such thing, but rather, a collection of favored contractors who would vanish in an instant in any real marketplace) is missing a key point about the role of government in opening up space. NASA is more than simply a “technology development” shop — it is the representative of the federal civil government on the frontier. It represents the American people as a collective entity and is critical to establishing our rights of access and property in the future. Those not present on the frontier do not get a voice in making the rules.

      Previous posts relevant to this topic:

      Surrendering in Space

      International Repercussions [Part 2] The Power Vacuum

      American Space Program Reflects Standing in the World

      Unexpected Connections: The Strategic Defense Initiative and Space Resources

    • There’s plenty of money in NASA’s human spaceflight related budget to develop large cargo landers and reusable crew landers for the lunar surface– if such efforts are prioritized. And this will be especially true after NASA finally ends its big LEO programs.

    • billgamesh says:

      “NASA should follow the model that the rest of the government does, and find a commercial supplier to provide services-”

      Human Space Flight Beyond Earth Orbit is space exploration and not “commercial” or in any sense a “service”. NewSpace has always conflated satellite launch and HSF as a way to mislead and deceive concerning the central problem.

      That problem is the profit motive is toxic to any progress in space exploration. Space exploration defined as HSF-BEO has little to do with GEO telecom satellites (and lesser revenues from military spy satellites). This is the primary stumbling block to expansion into the solar system and why humans have not even left orbit for going on half a century.
      LEO is a dead end and anyone who will not admit that is invested in doing so.

      A state sponsored lunar return program with Super Heavy Lift Vehicles is the only path to breaking the deadlock and eventually enabling commercial enterprise BEO. It is not a flexible path. In this respect the NewSpace ideology, which is antithetical to any such public works project, is the worst thing that has ever happened to space exploration.

      There is no SHLV except the SLS and the over-the-top demonization of this program by SpaceX groupies is blatant. NewSpace is really not about space at all- it is about a company that has cleverly propagandized and influence-peddled their way into the satellite launch business. Comments about ROI and big money invested in new systems by “someone” are Orwellian and symptomatic of unrealized damage done to public opinion by a pernicious cabal.

  7. Grand Lunar says:

    Good points here.
    And based on what I’ve read elsewhere, it does seem that Bridenstine could be a good pick for NASA admin.

    Let us all hope that sanity does prevail at the Space Council meeting.
    It is way past time for a new direction.

    At least this time, we have actual ideas already in place before hand.

  8. billgamesh says:

    “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.”

    While most of the public is spending significant blocks of their lifespan playing with a smart phone the creation of the SHLV by the space agency in the last century is a neglected and absolutely fascinating subject. Abe Silverstein fought a long battle promoting hydrogen as a propellant. If not for a pre-existing infrastructure that had been created to fuel a failed spy plane he probably would not have won the argument with von Braun about using hydrogen. This detail is important when considering the success of the Moon landing is attributed by von Braun to those hydrogen upper stages of the Saturn V.

    The F-1 engine, developed by Rocketdyne, dated back to an Air Force program in 1955. NASA carefully husbanded this inheritance during the transfer of projects to the fledgling space agency: At that time, no vehicle existed to use the F-1. In fact, no designated mission existed either.

    Sorry for the long post but the point I would like to make has to have some exposition. The point being vast resources and expertise were brought into play to enable humans to first escape the Earth’s gravitational field on December 21st, 1968. We find ourselves now groping and fumbling to even put someone in Low Earth Orbit (with cheap and nasty underpowered “private” technology predating hydrogen and the F-1). We should not even be trying to put people in LEO. We need another Jim Webb to dump that entire dog and pony show and focus on lunar return.

  9. Joe says:

    Hi Paul,

    Sorry to be “late to the party”, but am dealing with weather related issues.

    Glad to hear Bridenstine got the appointment.

    Anyone who doubts he supports both Lunar ISRU and SLS/Orion need only read the article he wrote and posted on his congressional website.

    Will be interesting to see how much he has to say in establishing policy.

  10. Ben says:

    Every indication I’ve seen says that both Blue Origin and SpaceX would be willing to do missions to either lunar orbit or the lunar surface if asked (and paid).

    Bezos may in-fact fund such a mission with his own money. (He seems pretty excited about the moon being the next logical destination)

    I’m just pointing out that just because you detest “NewSpace” doesn’t mean that they cannot serve a useful purpose in achieving a permanent human settlement on the moon.

    Not all cargos need to be launched in large pieces. The Delta IV Heavy, Falcon Heavy (eventually), and Atlas V can all launch at least 10mt to LLO. This should be sufficient sometimes. Perhaps enough for a small crew capsule.

    Using existing/NewSpace launchers may be economical depending on how many SLS launches per year we actually achieve.

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