The first thing to know about James Frederick Bridenstine, who has served as NASA’s administrator for a little more than 30 months, is that he was not staying on as the space agency’s leader regardless of the presidential election results.
Not that he wants out of the job. Bridenstine has relished the challenge of leading NASA through troubling times and overcoming initial concerns about his partisanship to lead NASA—all of NASA—through the turbulent years of the Trump administration. Nor is it because he has failed. Bridenstine has largely succeeded in pushing the agency forward and will leave it better than he found it.
But the reality is that a Democratic president was never going to keep Bridenstine, who has a political rather than a technical background, on as administrator. And he knew this. He said as much this week, telling Aviation Week that a new president would probably want someone else, someone fully trusted. After all, he had previously introduced legislation to remove Earth science from NASA’s mission statement, and he criticized same-sex marriages. Bridenstine will resign his position on January 20.
However, he would not have come back for a second Trump administration, either. During his tenure as NASA administrator, which began in April of 2018, Bridenstine embraced climate science and supported Earth science missions. Moreover, the president’s advisers wanted Bridenstine to bash his predecessors more, to contrast the “success” of the Trump space program with the “failure” of President Obama’s. But Bridenstine more or less held the line, crediting his predecessors for creating and funding the commercial crew program that led to SpaceX’s dramatic crewed flight in May.
“He has been a NASA administrator, not a Trump representative at NASA,” said John Logsdon, a historian who has known all of the agency’s administrators since its inception in 1958.
Multiple sources have confirmed that Bridenstine would have stepped down or been moved aside had Trump been reelected. He had legitimate family reasons for doing so—the 45-year-old has a young and growing family and a desire to spend more time with them in Oklahoma. But there were also clear signals that a second Trump administration would have turned the apolitical NASA into a more political agency.
For example, within the coming months, the agency planned to hold an elaborate ceremony to formally rename the NASA Headquarters after “Hidden Figure” Mary Jackson. The event was to feature Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter. Along these lines, NASA would get a new leader as well—not so much a NASA administrator, but a Trump representative at the space agency.
Assessing his tenure
In an interview, Logsdon said he rated Bridenstine’s term at NASA a success. “I think he’s exceeded anyone’s expectations in the position,” the historian and expert in presidential space politics said.
Logsdon cited two primary successes. One, he said, is that Bridenstine stabilized the agency’s programs. In particular, with the Artemis Program, Bridenstine has built bipartisan support for a plan to send humans back to the Moon and eventually on to Mars. He has also engendered support within much of the industry for this idea and began to bring international partners on board with important commitments.
Bridenstine also did this while managing perceptions that Artemis was a “political” program, with a convenient target date of 2024 for landing humans on the Moon—what would have been the final year of a second Trump term. Logsdon said he believes it is reasonable to expect that Artemis will continue in some form under President-elect Joe Biden’s administration, although the first Moon landing is unlikely before the second half of the 2020s.
Logsdon also credited Bridenstine with recognizing the changing times in space—commercial companies, led by SpaceX, are contributing more private money and ideas to exploration—and embraced them. “He’s led the transition from old NASA to new NASA, in particular with the emphasis on public-private partnerships, and the engagement of the US private sector, more strongly than any of his predecessors.”
Bridenstine has not been perfect, of course. Areas outside of human exploration within the agency have at times felt largely ignored by Bridenstine. Some in the astronaut office, too, have felt politicized by their appearances at the White House and other events for the benefit of the Trump administration. Bridenstine also had help: a supportive vice president in Mike Pence and a National Space Council led by Scott Pace. But Bridenstine was the public face of NASA, leading the charge.
There can be little doubt that Bridenstine and his team have sought to improve NASA and put it on a sustainable course.
“He came into the conversation having just rolled out the American Space Renaissance Act, which was a huge collection of thoughts on space policy,” said Anthony Colangelo, founder of the Main Engine Cutoff Podcast. “It generally sounded like a collation of all the ideas that space enthusiasts had been discussing and debating and circling around for the past few years. To see those forward-looking policy ideas thrown into the Congressional mix really got people excited.”
Bridenstine’s genuine enthusiasm for space also helped win over space fans and observers like Colangelo. Bridenstine would talk about these topics with the same passion as fans. He drank Mountain Dew at congressional hearings. “He sounded like he could have been right alongside us talking and arguing about space issues on Twitter or Reddit or NASASpaceflight forums or on your favorite podcast,” Colangelo said.
Among people who already care about space, this enthusiasm was infectious. The real question is whether this desire for exploration beyond low-Earth orbit can be extended beyond the space community. The best test of this is whether Congress ultimately funds the Artemis Program. NASA sought more than $3 billion for a Human Landing System in the fiscal year 2021 budget, but it now looks like Congress will provide $600 million to $1 billion. Although this is considerably less, it might still be seen as a baseline commitment to funding the lunar program, albeit on a slower timeline.
Ultimately, Jim Bridenstine’s legacy will probably depend on whether such funding proves transitory or ultimately does in fact lead to the first woman and the next man landing on the Moon in NASA spacesuits.