Foust Forward | Can bipartisan support for NASA’s Bridenstine survive a transition?

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Given all the challenges that Jim Bridenstine has had to deal with as NASA administrator, from accelerating a human return to the surface of the moon to coping with the coronavirus pandemic, perhaps the biggest accomplishment has been winning broad, bipartisan approval for his leadership of the space agency.

“I want to congratulate the NASA administrator. I think he’s been doing a remarkable job,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) at a Space Transportation Association webinar in June. “You don’t often hear me complimenting people in the administration.”

That’s an understatement. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Schiff has investigated, and been very critical of, the Trump administration, and has in turn been the target of Twitter tirades from the president. Schiff, though, has been a longtime advocate of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the boundary of his district, and likes what JPL and NASA are doing. Bridenstine, he said, “is doing really good and important work.”

Bridenstine’s broad bipartisan support in Congress is all the more remarkable given the partisan nature of his confirmation. After being nominated in the fall of 2017, he faced strong opposition from Democratic senators who questioned his credentials as a Republican congressman from Oklahoma to lead the agency. The Senate confirmed him in April 2019 on a 50—49 vote that fell along party lines.

His performance leading the agency, though, has erased those earlier concerns, and Bridenstine now has strong support from both Republicans and Democrats, a shift that appears to have even taken him by surprise. “This is one of those jobs where you lead an agency that everybody loves,” he said in a talk at the Future Space 2020 conference July 8. “I’ll tell you, that was pleasantly surprising.”

That broad support has some wondering, and worrying, what might happen in November. While Bridenstine would likely stay on if Trump is reelected, the situation is far less certain should Joe Biden — leading by wide margins in most recent polls — win the presidency.

Despite a long career in the Senate and eight years as President Obama’s vice president, Biden has said little about space during his political career. Space policy did not come up during the campaign for the Democratic nomination and, understandably, has taken a back seat in the general election campaign to concerns about the pandemic, the economy and social justice.

At an event organized by the Biden campaign just before the SpaceX Demo-2 launch in May, former NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and former Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said that Biden, as vice president, played a key role behind the scenes in winning support for a strategy that included commercial crew. “He was very much a part of the decision-making that went into this,” Nelson said of Biden.

Bolden, at that event and subsequent ones, has praised his successor. “Jim Bridenstine as the NASA administrator is, I think, doing an excellent job keeping everybody focused,” he said in an Aerospace Corporation webinar July 2.

That’s led to a quiet push in the space industry to encourage the Biden campaign to retain Bridenstine should Biden win in November. It would not be unprecedented: Dan Goldin became NASA administrator when George H.W. Bush was president and was kept on by Bill Clinton and then, briefly, George W. Bush. Goldin, though, kept his job in the Clinton administration in part because he was a Democrat and also because Clinton’s choice to lead the agency, Sally Ride, turned him down.

That assumes, of course, Bridenstine wants to stay on at NASA. He appears to be enjoying the job, but the work can wear down anyone over time. At the NASA Exploration Science Forum July 8, he noted that, when he was in Congress, he backed a bill that would have made the administrator’s position like that of FBI director, with a 10-year term, to insulate it from politics. “Now that I’m in the job, 10 years seems like a long time.”


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine. This column ran in the July 13, 2020 issue.