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Likely NASA Administrator Has Big Space Ambitions — But Trump May Hinder Them

Likely NASA Administrator Has Big Space Ambitions — But Trump May Hinder Them
Illustration by Matt Griesmyer

An Oklahoma Congressman is President Donald Trump’s choice to be the next NASA administrator, according to reports, but his plans for space may be pulled back to Earth by the man who hired him.

NASA Watch, a niche news organization that focuses on the space industry, reported Wednesday that Rep. Jim Bridenstine will be NASA’s next leader. A Rice University graduate, Bridenstine is an aviator in the Navy Reserve and has served in Congress since 2012. He has not commented on speculation that he’ll soon join NASA.

In his five years in Congress, Bridenstine has shown an enthusiasm for space exploration, and said he wants the United States to reinvest in space and NASA, including more moon missions to explore the possibility of establishing a base there.

In 2016, the congressman sponsored the American Space Renaissance Act, which aims to project military strength through an American presence in space, spur commercial space innovation and provide clear goals and deadlines for NASA. In a website he created to promote the legislation, Bridenstine noted how often technology created for space travel has benefited the everyday lives of Americans — and argued that the United States may cede influence over space by neglecting NASA.

“Unfortunately, continued socioeconomic growth from space technology maturation and increased space access is no longer assured,” Bridenstine wrote. “Space is becoming more congested, contested, and competitive.  We must establish responsible governance that will prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust, while assuring the use of space for all responsible parties. As a military pilot, I can attest that our national security and our very way of life require both military and commercial space capabilities.”

The bill did not make it out of committee and received just a single co-sponsor, highlighting the struggle NASA has had finding the money it needs for its missions. Since the glory days of NASA, government investment in the space agency has dwindled. In 1966, in the middle of the Apollo Program, NASA spending accounted for 4.5 percent of the federal budget. Now, that figure is less than half a percent. Since the end of the shuttle program in 2011, American astronauts have had to hitch a ride with Russian cosmonauts to the International Space Station.

Despite his ambitions for NASA and the American space industry, Bridenstine may be hamstrung by the administration that hired him. President Trump’s FY 2018 budget includes $19.1 billion for NASA, a $561 million decrease from present levels that CBS News reported would eliminate some Earth science missions and put the kibosh on NASA’s plan to retrieve a piece of an asteroid, an exercise that would prepare astronauts for the challenges of flying to Mars.

Where the president himself stands on NASA remains a mystery. In 2012, he criticized the Obama administration for cutting NASA’s budget and forcing astronauts to hitchhike from Kazakhstan — but he has yet to offer an alternative travel arrangement.

Trump did not articulate a clear vision for NASA during his presidential campaign. During a call with astronauts aboard the International Space Station, Trump asked astronauts to reach Mars "during my first term or, at worst, during my second term," after those same astronauts told him this would not be possible until the 2030s. Plus, they'd need more money.

So Bridenstine may soon inherit a problem shared by leaders across the government: a president with grand plans unwilling to invest the time, expertise or investment to reaching them. 

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Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart