How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA

How Jim Bridenstine recruited an old enemy to advise NASA
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NASA Administrator Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineNASA reveals new spacesuits for next moon mission Hillicon Valley: Google, Reddit to testify on tech industry protections | Trump joins Amazon-owned Twitch | House to vote on bill to combat foreign interference NASA targeting early 2020 for first manned SpaceX mission MORE recently made a stunning announcement in this age of partisan rancor.

“Proud to announce that Sen. Bill NelsonClarence (Bill) William NelsonBottom Line Bottom Line Media and candidates should be ashamed that they don't talk about obesity MORE, an astronaut, will be joining us next week as one of the newest members of the @NASA Advisory Committee. He is a true champion for human spaceflight and will add tremendous value as we go to the Moon and on to Mars.”

The NASA Advisory Committee is a panel of outside experts that offers helpful suggestions for the space agency. Members serve at the pleasure of the NASA administrator.

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Anyone who knows the back story of Bridenstine and former Sen. Nelson would find this development remarkable. When Bridenstine was first nominated for the post of administrator of NASA, Nelson, then the senior senator from Florida, led a full-throated campaign to derail that appointment. 

Nelson and the other Democrats on the Senate Commerce Committee accused Bridenstine of various unpleasant things, of being biased against women and LGBT people, of being a climate change “denier,” and, the unkindest, but most ironic cut of all, of being a politician. Bridenstine, then a congressman from Oklahoma, was certainly guilty of the latter.

After a several-month standoff between the Trump administration and Nelson and his fellow Democrats, Bridenstine was finally confirmed by the Senate. The newly-minted head of NASA immediately began to prepare NASA for the task of returning Americans to the lunar surface, even winning over some of his former Democratic enemies. Then, Nelson lost his senate seat in the 2018 midterms. 

The NASA administrator has shown a rare greatness in a former politician by recruiting the man who worked so diligently to block his nomination, to get America back to the moon. Bridenstine even referred to Nelson as an “astronaut,” harkening back to when the then-congressman from Florida used his political connections to get a shuttle mission.

Nelson was equally gracious in his acceptance:

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“Thank you @JimBridenstine. I look forward to working with you and @NASA to once again send Americans to explore the heavens.”

Nelson’s assistance will be sorely needed. As Space News noted, securing funding in the House to get American moon boots on the lunar surface is going to be touch and go, even though Bridenstine is upbeat about the prospect, noting that the Senate is likely to be more forthcoming in securing the extra $1.6 billion in funding. 

In the meantime, Nelson’s appointment to the NASA Advisory Committee is garnering universal praise, not the least from Bridenstine’s predecessor, Charles Bolden.

“This is a big move to help maintain NASA as an apolitical agency focused on bringing our discoveries in space back to our home planet for the benefit of all humankind. Congratulations to both Administrator Bridenstein and Sen. Nelson on this win-win for NASA and the Nation!”

Besides misspelling Bridenstine’s name Bolden was being unintentionally ironic. He presided over the most partisan NASA in history. It was none of his doing, but the sole work of the president at whose pleasure he served. President Obama’s abrupt and politically motivated cancellation of the last attempt to return to the moon, Project Constellation, blighted NASA and support for space exploration for a decade. 

It could be a delicious development if Project Artemis, the new attempt to return to the moon, would be the instrument of healing the wound that Obama inflicted on NASA and forging a new bipartisan consensus to take America and the rest of the world into deep space. Bridenstine’s reaching out to Nelson is a step in that direction, a small step, but one that could lead to many giant leaps.

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.”