Why former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine endorsed a congressional candidate

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Recently, former NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine endorsed Virginia Republican John Henley for the House of Representatives. Why did Bridenstine, who hewed to a strict, nonpartisan posture when he led the space agency, seemingly dip his toe back into partisan politics? The answer is that Bridenstine, a canny politician, appears to be playing the long game to make sure that space policy is given the attention that it is due in Congress by supporting a man with knowledge and experience in that area.

Bridenstine is unique in that he became NASA chief out of the world of politics — a former Republican congressman of Oklahoma. NASA administrators have tended to be engineers like Thomas Paine or Dan Goldin; former astronauts like Richard Truly and Charles Bolden; or government bureaucrats such as James Webb and Sean O’Keefe. Bridenstine’s political experience served him and the space agency in good stead when he ran NASA. Ironically, his status as a politician almost caused him to be denied confirmation as NASA administrator.

Despite one of the most contentious confirmation hearings in my memory, with barbs from then-Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the nominee was eventually confirmed. Then the newly minted NASA administrator showed his political guile.

First, Bridenstine dropped his role as a partisan Republican and began to sell the Artemis return to the moon program on a bipartisan basis, believing, rightly, that the effort would only succeed where previous ones had failed if both Republicans and Democrats would buy into it. Along the way, he won over many of his previous critics. Even House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-N.Y.), among Washington’s most partisan, had nice things to say about Artemis. Impressed that one of the astronauts who will return to the moon will be a woman, Pelosi said, “Our hopes are riding on you, Jim.”

Next, Bridenstine dealt with Nelson in an unusually adroit way. Nelson lost his senate seat in the 2018 midterms. Despite Nelson’s opposition to Bridenstine at his confirmation hearing, Bridenstine appointed Nelson to a NASA advisory committee. Then, when it came time for Bridenstine to step down  at NASA with the incoiming Biden administration, he supported Nelson to be his successorAs President Abraham Lincoln once quipped, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Thanks to Bridenstine, Artemis has become a bipartisan program. President Biden, almost alone of nearly all of his predecessor’s proposals, has adopted the return to the moon as his own. People from the planet Earth will walk on the lunar surface again in the not-so-distant future.

Bridenstine’s endorsement of Henley for Congress would seem, on the surface, to be a partisan, political act. However, more important than his party affiliation is Henley’s space policy experience. He served as an Air Force legislative liaison and worked to establish the Space Force. Bridenstine touted Henley’s space policy expertise, something the former NASA administrator knows firsthand from his time as a member of Congress.

Space policy expertise is a rare commodity in Congress. For every Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who crafted and passed commercial space legislation, more than a number of people like Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) exist, whose care for space does not appear to extend beyond how it can benefit his or her state or district. The more members of Congress who understand the big picture about how space can be of benefit, the better. 

If Henley and whoever else Bridenstine endorses prevail in 2022, the former NASA administrator can add the title of “kingmaker” to his resume.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of space exploration studies “Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon?” as well as “The Moon, Mars and Beyond,” and “Why is America Going Back to the Moon?” He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner. 

Tags Bill Nelson Jim Bridenstine Joe Biden Mark R. Whittington Moon Nancy Pelosi NASA Richard Shelby Space Space policy Ted Cruz

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