Jim Bridenstine, the current administrator of NASA, took to Twitter recently to look back on his first year on a job that he had to fight for in struggle with Senate Democrats that was right out of an Allen Drury novel.
Ars Technica’s Eric Berger added what Bridenstine should expect in his second year.
As they say, no pressure.
Bridenstine has brought a lot of gifts to his position of head of the United States space program in a time of tumultuous change. His status as a three-term member of the House of Representatives was depicted as a problem during the senate confirmation hearings. As it turned out, Bridenstine’s political skills have turned out to be an asset.
Ironically, Bridenstine had to transition from a partisan, conservative representative from a district in Oklahoma to a non-partisan administrator capable of reaching across both sides of the aisle. Bridenstine has been able to win over some of his former Democratic critics. The instigator of the campaign to deny him his post as head of NASA, Sen Bill Nelson, D-Florida, lost his seat in the 2018 midterms in an instance of pure karma. Nelson had wielded great power over how NASA was run and even who ran it. He is now back in the private sector.
One of the chief accomplishments that Bridenstine modestly did not list was, with the help of the administration he serves at the pleasure of, the restoration of credibility and respect to NASA that had been squandered by the previous administration. Bridenstine has a reputation for honesty and an obvious enthusiasm for NASA’s mission that is in every tweet, interview, and online video. He has never offered the slightest hint of evasion or quibbling, whether at a congressional hearing or at a speech to an audience of STEM students. Bridenstine is the politician who does not seem to be a politician.
Bridenstine’s second year is going to be a challenging one, as Berger suggests. Getting NASA and its coalition of allied space agencies and commercial companies on course for a moon landing in 2024 and using the clunky, expensive, and chronically behind schedule Space Launch System to do it will truly be doing space not because it is easy, but because it is hard. Failure could be an option, especially if Congress gets stingy with funding.
However, if moon boots hit the lunar soil five years hence and it leads to not only a community of humans on Earth’s nearest neighbor but humans on Mars in the 2030s, Bridenstine will have accomplished things that few human beings have managed in the modern age. Indeed, his career will be studied by students growing up on a Mars colony hundreds of years from now. Not a bad legacy to leave behind, that.
Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.