Bridenstine to Leave NASA Administrator Post

Jim Bridenstine (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a decision that has disappointed his supporters, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine plans to leave his position even if president-elect Joe Biden asked him to stay.

Irene Klotz broke the news in Aviation Week. The story is behind a paywall, but Klotz did tweet:

“You need somebody who has a close relationship with the president of the U.S. … somebody trusted by the administration…. including OMB, National Space Council, National Security Council. I think I would not be the right person for that in a new administration –Bridenstine

Agency administrators usually change when a new president comes in, particularly if he is from a different party. Bridenstine is a former Republican Congressman from Oklahoma appointed by President Donald Trump, who was defeated by his Democratic opponent Biden last week.

A prominent exception to the practice was Dan Goldin, who was appointed NASA administrator by Republican President George H.W. Bush but kept on by the Democratic administration of Bill Clinton in 1993. He left NASA in 2001 during the first year of President George W. Bush’s term.

Bridenstine would presumably serve at least until Biden is sworn in as president at noon on Jan. 20, 2021. If he departed at that point or earlier, an acting administrator would oversee the space agency until the Senate approves Biden’s nominee to run NASA.

Bridenstine has been popular among many in the space community for his enthusiastic promotion of NASA. There is even a petition urging the incoming administration to keep him as NASA administrator.

Bridenstine has been leading the Trump Administration’s effort to land astronauts on the moon in 2024 as part of NASA’s Artemis program. Last year, the administration moved up the target date by four years from 2028.

It’s not clear what Biden’s space policy will be when he takes office. There is speculation that the new president will continue the Artemis program with a later landing date while increasing funding for NASA’s Earth Science program.

The accelerated Artemis program was in doubt even before Biden won the presidency. The Trump Administration requested $25.2 billion for NASA’s fiscal year (FY) 202 budget, including $3.2 billion for the Human Landing System to take astronauts to the surface.

The request remains in limbo because Congress hasn’t passed a budget for FY 2021, which began on Oct. 1. Like the rest of the government, the space agency has been operating on a continuing resolution that keeps NASA’s spending at FY 2020 levels and limits its ability to begin new programs or expand existing ones.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives has approved only $628.2 million for HLS as part of a spending bill that would keep NASA’s budget flat at $22.6 billion.

The Senate has not passed a spending bill for NASA yet. Senators were non-committal during recent hearings, citing the COVID-19 pandemic that has severely damaged the economy and forced Congress to pass a $2 trillion bailout package.

Any differences between the House and Senate bills would be resolved by a conference committee before the budget is sent to the president.

In September, Bridenstine said NASA needed the full $3.2 billion for HLS by December, or March at the latest, to meet the 2024 landing deadline. But, prospects remain uncertain despite Bridenstine’s optimism that Congress will come through with full funding.

Democratic legislators have said the Trump Administration has not put forth either a compelling rationale or a solid plan for the 2024 landing date. They also expressed concerns about the safety of what they view as a rushed program.

Then there were the political considerations. A 2024 landing would have allowed Trump to end his second term on a high note if he had been reelected. Vice President Mike Pence could take credit for helping to guide the Artemis program as chairman of the National Space Council during his 2024 bid for the presidency.

It’s unclear whether Congress and Trump will agree on a budget before the former expires and the latter leaves office in January. Legislators might pass another continuing resolution when the current one expires in December, leaving the matter to the new Congress and president.

Democrats will continue to control the House next year. Control of the Senate will depend upon the outcome of two runoff elections in Georgia in January.