Bridenstine Proposed Radical Restructuring of NASA Oversight Last Year

Rep. Jim Bridenstine

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Donald Trump’s nominee to become administrator of NASA proposed a fundamental overhaul of how the space agency would be run last year.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine’s (R-OK) American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) proposes the establishment of a 21-member board to oversee the space agency, giving the NASA administrator a five-year term, and the creation of 10- and 20-year strategic plans.

The overarching goal of these proposals is to insulate the space agency from changes in direction each time a new presidential administration takes over.

ASRA was a catch-all bill that contained proposals for broad changes to the nation’s civil, military and commercial space efforts. Bridenstine did not intend the ASRA to be passed as a single bill but as a series of individual measures. Congress has not taken up any of the NASA management reforms included in bill.

Currently, the White House oversees the space agency, with the president appointing the NASA administrator and deputy administrator with the advice and consent of the Senate. In most instances, administrators depart once the presidents that appointed them leave office.

Earlier this year, the Trump Administration revived the National Space Council, which had been dormant for 24 years. Chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, the NSC’s goal is to coordinate civilian and military space programs across the government.

ASRA makes no mention of a revived NSC. So, it’s not clear how Bridenstine’s proposed restructuring of the agency’s management described below would fit in  — if at all — with the revived council. Some features such as the oversight board might be seen as redundant.

ASRA calls for the establishment of a 21-member NASA Leadership and Advising Commission to oversee the space agency. The unpaid members would serve staggered five-year terms. Appointments to the commission would be apportioned as follows:

  • four members appointed by the President;
  • four members appointed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives;
  • four members appointed by the minority leader of the House of Representatives;
  • four members appointed by the majority leader of the Senate; and,
  • four members shall be appointed by the minority leader of the Senate.

Commission members would choose an outsider as a chairperson. “If practical and appropriate,” the chairperson would be a former NASA administrator or deputy administrator.

Commissioners would serve without pay on a part-time basis with only reimbursement for travel expenses. Members would appoint a paid director, press secretary and up to five employees to serve as a permanent staff.

A key function of the commission would be to submit a list of candidates for NASA administrator when the job becomes vacant. The president would be required to appoint someone from that list to serve a five-year term.

The NASA administrator would be charged with developing 10-year and 20-year strategic plans in accordance with the space agency’s pioneering doctrine.

“The 20-year plan…shall outline broad goals for NASA for the 20-year period beginning with the year in which the plan is developed,” the bill states. “The 10-year plan…shall provide specific objectives and budget profiles, based on the broad goals outlined in the 20-year plan.

“The first 20-year plan required under section 202(e)(1) shall designate a 5-7 year range by which NASA intends for American astronauts to land on the surface of Mars,” the bill adds.

The commission would “provide to Congress, NASA, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of Science and Technology Policy, an analysis of, and recommendations for changes to, each long-term plan submitted by the Administrator,” the bill states.

NASA would pursue its plans under multi-year budgets submitted to Congress by the space agency. This change would insulate programs from the uncertainties involved in annual budget negotiations on Capitol Hill.

The commission would provide an analysis of the president’s budget proposals for the space agency.