The case for NASA'S Bridenstine post-Election Day
No matter the outcome on Nov. 3, Administrator Jim Bridenstine should remain at the helm of NASA to shepherd the agency through one of the most dynamic times in its history.
A return to American crewed launch capability, the Artemis Accords as a new U.S.-led international effort for developing the Moon, the fate of the International Space Station (ISS) as it celebrates a 20-year anniversary and the direction of key space science and technology programs are inextricably linked to the occupant of the NASA administrator’s office.
The space industry continues to rapidly evolve, and NASA — a key enabler of such change — requires consistent leadership to sustain and grow American excellence. Bridenstine has not only demonstrated his ability to do this thus far, but his ability to persuasively make the case for America’s leadership role in space among the nations of the world befits his continued tenure as NASA administrator.
As a key component of America’s DIME (diplomatic, informational, military and economic) strategy to which Bridenstine often refers, NASA requires stable leadership in our current world of crisis. If a Biden administration comes into office on Inauguration Day, it should resist the urge to extend its replacement of cabinet-level officials with Democrat members-in-the-waiting. With recent reports of Biden considering Republican appointees to cabinet offices should Biden prevail, it does not sit outside the realm of the possible for Bridenstine as a Republican to remain at NASA. Despite our hyperpartisan politics, Bridenstine has proven himself reliably non-partisan advocating for NASA and America’s role in space within the international community, making him a palatable pill to swallow for any partisan advocates seeking to replace him.
Moreover, Bridenstine has successfully navigated and moved the space community beyond the false dichotomy of pursuing either missions to the Moon or to Mars. Instead, Bridenstine has convincingly made the argument for the Moon to Mars approach, advocating for the development of the Moon as a way for the U.S. and international community to sustainably support missions to the Red Planet. He has reshaped the story of space, effectively quashing the unhelpful partisan notions of “Republicans are for the Moon” and “Democrats are for Mars.” Space exploration and development, and the priorities therein, should not be dictated by politics, and Bridenstine has demonstrated this does not have to be the case.
Beyond advancing understanding of the role of space in American politics, the administrator has also helped usher in a new way of doing business for NASA, such as with the Commercial Lunar Payload Services program. By supporting innovative ways of contracting whereby the agency pays for results and services, rather than dictating the design requirements and ways in which those services are provided, Bridenstine proves himself a successful operator in the world of slow-to-change government procurement. NASA will continue to require the innovative, high-level thought leadership matched by the administrative and management thinking that Bridenstine brings to the table.
Assuming in the event of a Trump victory, Bridenstine can follow in the footsteps of one of his predecessors, Charles Bolden, who served both terms of the Obama administration, NASA and America will benefit. Whether he continues to serve under a Democrat or a Republican administration, consistent and reliable leadership for America’s space agency remains crucial given the crisis of global affairs due to COVID-19.
Given recent rebukes of the U.S. space program Given recent rebukes of the U.S. space program by popular media and Hollywood personalities, questioning the value of space investments when so many are suffering, communicating the value and return on investment in space proves more important than ever. Space has yielded benefits unimaginable by many, enabling how we conduct our modern lives ranging from GPS and banking to weather forecasting and farming.
Most recently in response to the pandemic, NASA has helped make advances in ventilator and respirator technology, used supercomputers to support COVID-19 research and improved our understanding of social and environmental changes resulting from the pandemic. NASA needs to demonstrate how it benefits everyday Americans while pursuing its most ambitious projects — renewed and expanded crewed launches from American soil, commercialization of Low Earth Orbit, the Artemis Accords uniting America and its partners for a return to the Moon and new science missions to explore our Solar System and beyond.
Bridenstine has proven himself and should continue to have the opportunity to prove himself irrespective of Election Day results, as not only a persuasive communicator sharing the importance of these projects, but as an effective administrator, in the literal sense of the word, of America’s and the world’s premier space agency.
David Lindgren is a space policy researcher based in the Washington, D.C., metro region, and has published on topics ranging from international space law to the application of space activities for development.