There were plenty of reasons to wince back in 2017 when U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was appointing Jim Bridenstine as NASA administrator. A former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, Bridenstine was a political pick—unlike most of his predecessors, who came out of the astronaut corps or the aerospace industry. Moreover, Bridenstine had previously questioned the role of human beings in climate change. A politician with so wrong-headed a view of so fundamental and existential an issue was not someone you wanted anywhere near the helm of a science-driven agency.
But flash forward to 2020. With Trump now a lame duck and President-elect Joe Biden just 68 days away from moving into the Oval Office, there is reason to regret Bridenstine’s announcement this week that he’s stepping down.
“What you need is somebody who has a close relationship with the President of the United States,” Bridenstine told Aviation Week. “You need somebody who is trusted by the administration…including the OMB [Office of Management and Budget], the National Space Council and the National Security Council, and I think that I would not be the right person for that in a new administration.”
That’s a shame, since Bridenstine’s brief tenure has been an unexpected success. Early in his confirmation process, he cleared up the climate change nonsense, saying he now embraced the science fully. While he couldn’t wave his lack of space industry experience away with a similar statement, his experience as a politician in many ways made up the difference. And over the last few years, he became something NASA always needs: a leader with both a vision to sell and the ability to sell it.
Under his tenure, NASA’s public-private hybrid Commercial Crew program has been thriving, with SpaceX having sent one crew to the International Space Station (ISS) and Boeing set to follow early next year. He proved himself effective not only at keeping enthusiasm up for the program, but also in keeping the commercial providers in line—once notably getting into a Twitter scrap with SpaceX chief Elon Musk over deadlines and delays.
More important, Bridenstine has led America’s most serious push to put astronauts on the moon since the Apollo era. Before Bridenstine’s arrival, NASA was in a slow drift either moon-ward or Mars-ward, with no clear goal or target date. The Trump Administration chose the moon as the target and 2024 as the deadline, and Bridenstine ran with that. With a politician’s eye for salesmanship, he dubbed the new program Artemis—Apollo’s sister—and announced that the program would be landing “the first woman and next man” on the surface of the moon. The muscle matched the marketing, with Bridenstine pushing the agency to meet the target date, choose private contractors to compete for the job of building the new lunar lander, and help craft the “Artemis Accords,” a multilateral pact to turn the lunar push into an international effort.
There is no word yet about who President-elect Biden will tap to replace Bridenstine. Whoever it is would be well-advised to study the success of Bridenstine’s 30-month tenure, take lots of notes, and then set about doing plenty of the same things. In a fractious four years during which Administration heads rolled and revolving doors spun, the NASA chief was something of a lode-star for how to get the job done. He will be rightly and roundly missed.