Current and former NASA leadership share credit for commercial crew

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WASHINGTON — On the eve of the first crewed orbital flight from the United States in nearly nine years, both the current NASA administrator and his predecessor agreed that credit for the ultimate success of the commercial crew program should be shared.

During a May 26 media briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was asked about a tweet he sent three days earlier, announcing that President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence would attend the Demo-2 commercial crew launch scheduled for May 27. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we are once again launching American astronauts on American rockets from American soil,” Bridenstine wrote. That tweet prompted criticism from some who noted the commercial crew program started under former President Barack Obama.

“This is a program that demonstrates the success when you have continuity of purpose going from one administration to the next,” Bridenstine said, stating that the commercial crew program built on the success of the commercial cargo resupply program started by former President George W. Bush nearly 15 years ago.

He also praised his predecessor. “Charlie Bolden did absolutely magnificent work as the NASA administrator,” he said, including selling the commercial crew program when it “didn’t have a lot of support in Congress.” NASA struggled to secure funding for the commercial crew program in its early years, which some advocates argue at least partially accounts for its significant delays.

“Charlie Bolden did just yeoman’s work in order to get this program off the ground, get it going, and here we are, all these years later, having this success,” Bridenstine said.

In a call with reporters later May 26, Bolden returned the favor. “I share the praise of anybody who’s been involved in advancing spaceflight for the U.S.,” he said when told of Bridenstine’s comments. Bolden, who served as NASA administrator for most of the Obama administration, said he passed along some advice to his successor: “Take credit for everything that happens on your watch, because none of us started anything. We all picked up something that was being done by somebody before.”

“I think he’s working out to be a great administrator,” he said of Bridenstine. “I give him kudos for everything that’s happened.”

Bolden and Bill Nelson, a former Democratic senator from Florida, spoke on the call organized by the campaign for presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president. While Biden did not appear to take an overt interest in NASA as vice president, both Bolden and Nelson said he played key roles winning support for commercial crew.

“Joe Biden was very much a part of this whole thing,” Nelson said, claiming Biden, as vice president, helped Nelson win congressional support for the approach enshrined in a 2010 NASA authorization bill that backed commercial crew development in parallel with the Space Launch System and Orion. “He was very much a part of the decision-making that went into this and ultimately brings us to this success that we hope will launch tomorrow.”

“I spent a lot of time with him,” Bolden said of Biden. In one such meeting, Bolden recalled Biden advising him to tell a better story in order to win support. “He said, ‘I can help you. I know the tune, but you have to give me the lyrics.’”

Biden has not commented on space policy during this election cycle, and his campaign did not respond to a brief set of questions from SpaceNews on space issues last September or in February, before the pandemic took hold in the United States. Nelson, asked what a Biden administration might do differently in space, including the Trump administration’s signature effort to return humans to the moon by 2024, declined to speculate.

“I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” he said, preferring to focus on the upcoming commercial crew launch. “Let’s get through this. That’s the wisest thing.”

Bolden suggested he would like to see a Biden administration continue with NASA’s current plans. “We hope that whoever follows the Trump administration, and my hope is that it’ll be a Biden administration, they will continue to march the way that we’re headed now, heading back to the moon and then on to Mars,” he said.

“I am hopeful that this administration and the next will continue to work with Congress to get the funding that’s needed to keep the Artemis program,” he said later in the call. But, he added, “we should all be focused on what’s going to happen tomorrow.”