“People need to understand that this is a political job,” former NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told Quartz last week.
The outgoing head of the world’s largest space agency under president Donald Trump never got a chance to forget that reality. His confirmation hearings focused on controversies from his time as a bomb-throwing conservative lawmaker. His final day on the job was spent arguing for the existence of a bipartisan consensus on space exploration.
Bridenstine is aware that many NASA administrators have seen their most ambitious proposals canceled after they leave office, and is capable of listing failed moonshots.
“Think back to the late 1990s with the space exploration initiative, to the moon and on to Mars—it got canceled because the legwork was never done to build the consensus,” he says. “To build a sustainable program, you have eliminate divisions, you have to build consensus, and you have to get the budgets to match the rhetoric.”
Bridenstine’s signature initiative is Artemis, a program intended to return astronauts to the moon, in particular the first woman. The target date of 2024 was seen as unlikely from the get-go. While Bridenstine is right that lawmakers of all stripes back a moon landing, it never won the financial support required to make that timing realistic.
That’s in part because many saw the 2024 target as inextricably tied to Trump’s political ambitions. Throughout, Bridenstine argued that the hasty pace was required to buy down a different kind of political risk—that Congress, impatient with stagnant programs, would simply cancel Artemis if it came with a more realistic deadline.
That thesis will be tested under the new Biden administration. Bridenstine’s final public appearance as administrator was during a press conference to explain an anomalous test of the huge Boeing SLS rocket designed to return astronauts to the moon. The aborted demonstration means additional delay, and perhaps will provide an excuse for policymakers to alter the program.
Still, Congress has invested tens of billions of dollars in the SLS rocket and the Orion space capsule. It has also spent hundreds of millions preparing other elements of the program, from robotic reconnoissance missions to a lunar way station to vehicles and spacesuits to protect astronauts on the surface of the moon.
Bridenstine is rightly proud that NASA’s budget has grown significantly during his time as administrator, but it’s worth noting that a booming economy and a Republican president tend to ease such spending. Now, with a different party in the White House, we will see if Bridenstine has managed to erase the divisions he saw when he came to NASA.
“There was this challenge where Republicans were in favor of the moon and Democrats were in favor of going to Mars,” Bridenstine said. “It created this division that kept us from going anywhere. Republicans were for human exploration and Democrats were for the science mission directorate.”
He is advising Biden’s transition team that “the best thing that any leader of this agency can do is find out wherever there are divisions and eliminate them.” One example is NASA’s plan to hire private companies to send robots to the moon. Traditionally, such a program would be part of NASA’s human exploration programs, but under Bridenstine, it is led by the science directorate.
“It’s not human exploration or science, it’s both, and they both can do more when they work together,” he says. “The narrative where everything is a zero-sum game…that narrative is what I thought was important to break down.”
Like many leaders in a sector with decade-long projects, Bridenstine’s biggest moments came shepherding existing programs to their finish, most notably the return of human spaceflight to the US with SpaceX’s crew Dragon capsule, the OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return mission, and the launch of the Mars 2020 exploration mission. The administrator was generous in crediting his predecessors, in contrast with the White House’s insistence that it had single-handedly revitalized NASA.
Another major aspect of Bridenstine’s legacy is in international law. As a member of Congress, he pushed for US property rights in space. As NASA administrator, he authorized missions to purchase lunar samples from private companies, creating a precedent for such exchanges. And he led an effort to develop norms for safe activity on the moon, called the Artemis Accords.
One of his main concerns as he leaves is how to manage the environmental consequences of growing activity in space, which might be seen as ironic given early worries that his climate change skepticism would continue as the leader of a scientific agency. (Congress ignored the Trump administration’s increasingly pro forma requests to cancel climate change research.)
“I’m worried that given the amount of debris and aggressive activity happening in space, that it might not be sustainable,” Bridenstine says. “In other words, our children and grandchildren won’t be able to explore space the way we would like to be able to explore space. We need to bring in as many nations as possible. That’s a critical piece of American soft power.”
Of course, there’s one key nation in space that the US doesn’t deal with directly, and that’s China. I asked if the US should drop its legal prohibition on cooperation with China’s civil space activities.
“If Congress and the administration were to make a determination that NASA should be a tool of diplomacy when we engage with China, I think NASA would be a great tool of diplomacy,” he said, diplomatically. “The question is, what are the behaviors that we want to see changed from China, and could NASA engaging with China result in those behavior modifications? If the answer to that is yes, I think NASA would stand ready to engage in a meaningful way.”
Now, Bridenstine will return to Oklahoma to spend time with his family after eight years in Washington. He says he’s not sure if he will return to aerospace in the future, but that he has high hopes that Artemis will keep moving.
“What I’m hoping that we’ve done now, differently than those other [canceled] programs, we’ve got the consensus,” he says. “I would encourage the next NASA administrator go even further.”
A version of this story first appeared in Quartz’s Space Business newsletter.