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Jim Bridenstine is the leader NASA needs

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Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), the president’s nominee for NASA administrator, is facing criticism regarding his qualifications for the job. These concerns seem to be rooted in a clear preference instead for a nominee possessing skills or experience as a scientist, engineer or technologist. Perhaps most critically, some have dismissed Bridenstine’s experience as inadequate given that he is an elected politician.

But if history is any guide, technical skills are not necessarily requisites for success leading this storied agency. While several previous NASA leaders were credentialed or experienced in such disciplines, this was not a clear determinant for success. And contrary to the critical view, Bridenstine arguably has the best qualifications for success given the challenges ahead. 

{mosads}Of the dozen previous NASA administrators, perhaps the most extraordinary and historically noteworthy of them served during the Apollo era. James Webb possessed a diverse base of experience, but none of the technical skills extolled in some of the current dialogue. Webb earned an undergraduate degree in Education, served in the Marine Corps, earned a law degree and served as a congressional staffer before a brief time in industry.


A registered Democrat and moderately active in politics, Webb served in the Truman administration at the Treasury Department, as the Director of the Bureau of the Budget at the White House — the precursor agency to the modern OMB — and as an under secretary of State during the contentious McCarthy era. Having served in a Democratic administration, he resigned when Truman left office and moved to Oklahoma to work for the leadership of the Kerr McGhee Oil Company during the Eisenhower years. 

He resurfaced in government service after newly elected President Kennedy appointed him to serve as the second NASA administrator. His tenure lasted through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The rest, of course, is history. Actually, an incredibly remarkable history that yielded perhaps NASA’s greatest achievement so far — landing on the Moon. 

Webb’s contribution was not his scientific or engineering know how. But he did have a wide breath of experience in finance, business management, the art of negotiating outcomes and making decisions in the very emotionally charged public policy arena.

In short, Webb was, by any standard, a politician and an awfully good one. 

He successfully marshaled an exceptional team of engineers and scientists, none of which suffered low self-esteem. Choosing among a multitude of diametrically opposite “right answers” advanced by those with technical expertise, it was up to Webb to achieve consensus among them to forge a path forward. 

He also needed to secure the president’s support for a strategy, devise management plans to achieve the outcomes and somehow convince Congress to appropriate funds to finance the endeavor. To do so required exceptional leadership, management and political skills drawn from an array of experiences and professional training to yield the heralded achievements of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.

He was a most remarkable public servant. But to listen to the critics today, it seems some might consider Webb to be a marginally qualified nominee. 

Consider the pending NASA nominee relative to the qualifications Webb possessed when he was nominated. In that light, Bridenstine may have just the skill set necessary to lead NASA to the next level. He received a Rice undergraduate degree and a Cornell MBA, is a former naval aviator and National Guard pilot who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, managed a non-profit and is a Republican presently serving his third term in Congress.

He’s learned the legislative and budgetary processes, exercised oversight of federal management, worked with varied and diverse constituencies to forge his legislative agenda and understands the art of Washington politics. In short, he’s now an elected politician — a public servant with an array of skills that could contribute to effectively leading this federal agency. 

NASA has a rich history derived from multiple professional, academic and technical disciplines. Its centers are spread across the nation in locations derived from political legacies — many of which originated in the Webb era. NASA’s diversity of talent, lineage, pedigrees and cultures are united by strong egos and great dedication to public service. To have any hope of motivating all the talent internal to the agency to turn the institution’s oars in the same direction requires a NASA administrator who knows how to lead people and manage things. 

Externally, it would be handy if the next NASA leader had the president’s confidence, knew the players in the White House, be a colleague of other decision makers in the administration, understands the workings and levers of Congress, could work with a variety of constituencies and just for good measure — possess the patience of Job. I’m not sure if Bridenstine has the last attribute, but arguably he gets more than a passing grade with the others.

It is impossible to tell if Jim Bridenstine will have the kind of success that Webb achieved. But in pursuit of this parallel prospect, it’s altogether possible he has exactly the skills and experience to position the agency to make that possible. His policy views, voting record and insights on how he may choose to use skills honed as a politician and elsewhere will surely be revealed in the upcoming confirmation hearing. But if past is prologue, he’s qualified to clear the hurdles for Senate confirmation. And I’m willing to bet he’ll prove to be a fine choice as the 13th NASA administrator.

Sean O’Keefe served as the 10th NASA administrator in the George W. Bush administration, 2001-2005, and is presently a professor of public administration at the Syracuse University Maxwell School. 

Tags Apollo program Jim Bridenstine NASA Sean O’Keefe

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