Buzz Aldrin and Greg Autry: It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to run NASA
President Trump called for “unlocking the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address and then envisioned “American footprints on distant worlds” in his speech before a Joint Session of Congress. Addressing a crowd at the Kennedy Space Center this summer, Vice President Pence confidently stated that “our nation will return to the Moon, and we will put American boots on the face of Mars.” Such an audacious agenda will require inspired engineering, committed financial support and bold leadership of the kind that Administrator James Webb supplied to NASA during the glory days of Gemini and Apollo.
Finding another Webb was no easy task. The president considered several excellent candidates, some of whom we personally admire, but in the spirit of Webb’s leadership, U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine is the president’s nominee for NASA administrator. Rumors of Mr. Bridenstine’s appointment have been swirling in the space community since the spring and during that time, the two of us have come to know him and his record. The more we learned, the happier we’ve become. We have found that Rep. Bridenstine possesses a remarkable understanding of the science, technology, economics and the policies that surround NASA. He is highly qualified to lead the world’s finest scientific and exploratory organization.
Anyone who doubts that should look closely at Mr. Bridenstine’s web page for his American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945) at http://spacerenaissanceact.com/. The ASRA offers a clear and workable plan to ensure that the benefits of space technology and resources continue to support exploration, science, American national security and economic development. As a space explorer and an academic we both applaud this integrated approach. Criticisms of Mr. Bridenstine’s nomination have centered around three themes, each of which are easily refuted.
He’s a leader, not a politician
Firstly, it has been suggested that a “politician” shouldn’t run NASA. We share a healthy skepticism of politicians and the suggestion of a congressman as administrator initially gave us pause. However, his record revealed that Jim Bridenstine is far from being a character out of House of Cards. He served with distinction as a Naval aviator in Afghanistan and Iraq. He continued to serve his country in the Naval Reserve and then the Air National Guard. He had no political career before launching a surprisingly successful 2012 campaign against an incumbent Republican in Oklahoma’s first district. Personally, we can tell you Mr. Bridenstine is an American patriot and a man of integrity who shares our passion for a vibrant NASA.
We’d remind those insisting that only a scientist or astronaut could run a space agency that James Webb was a lawyer by training and spent his entire career in the bowels of governmental bureaucracies. Apollo succeeded, because Webb understood people and practiced effective management.
Jim Bridenstine has a triple major from Rice University that should serve him well in leading NASA: psychology, economics and business. He also holds an MBA from Cornell, an educational tool that former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin applied well when defining the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. Griffin’s business school approach to plugging the launch gap NASA faced after the retirement of the space shuttle lead to two new commercial rockets supplying the International Space Station and launched a revived American commercial launch sector. Jim Bridenstine’s innovative thinking promises to extend that record of success.
He’s an Earth sciences advocate, not a climate change denier
Secondly, there has been a great deal of froth over Mr. Bridenstine’s position on climate change. He has always been a strong advocate of Earth sciences, commercial remote imaging, as well as robust weather and climate-data collection. He notes that, “My constituents get killed in tornadoes.” Mr. Bridenstine has clearly stated that he believes the climate is changing, that human activities are a contributing factor and that we have a national interest in understanding its causes and outcomes. He has supported several programs to collect additional climate data including championing the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act and support for efforts to launch satellites aimed at measuring atmospheric gasses via occultation (interference) of GPS signals. He also supported the requirement that climate trends be investigated as part of the 2018 Defense Authorization Act. His interests should be great news for firms like California-based imaging firm Planet and small launch startups like Virgin Orbit.
He’s a peacemaker in the space wars
Finally, some advocates of traditional space programs may be concerned about Jim’s intentions toward NASA’s contracting model. We are happy to see that Bridenstine offers a uniquely balanced approach. He rejects the either/or battles over policy and funding that have plagued our space program for the last generation and kept us from going as far as we could. These battles have pitted human spaceflight against robotic missions, astrophysics against Earth science and positioned traditional exploration programs against emerging entrepreneurial endeavors. The American public celebrates our space agency’s success in all these realms and deserves a NASA Administrator who shares their joy.
Jim Bridenstine is deeply interested in innovative engineering and business techniques that can help NASA do more with the public’s money. He is committed to continuing the SLS/Orion program and in integrating it into longer-term transportation systems. He also understands that while we must recapture the glory of Apollo we cannot afford another series of disposable missions. He supports public-private partnerships to develop economically sustainable solutions that will support scientific research and commercial development for generations to come. Specifically, we have spoken to Jim Bridenstine about permanent transportation systems to both the Moon and Mars. He understands that such a service, based on the Aldrin Cycler model, would change the economics of space exploration and resource exploitation.
We heartedly support the president’s nomination of Mr. Bridenstine as the next NASA administrator wish him Godspeed during the Senate confirmation process. We encourage you to join us in uniting the space community and our nation behind this nominee so NASA can return to its job of boldly exploring the final frontier.
Buzz Aldrin is an engineer, former U.S. Air Force pilot, former NASA astronaut, lunar explorer and advocate for Mars exploration.
Greg Autry studies space entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California and is a former White House liaison to NASA.