You Done Good Jim Bridenstine

Keith's note: Jim Bridenstine has announced that he is leaving NASA. His last day will be 20 January 2021.

I really did not know much about Jim Bridenstine when his name started to bubble up as a possible NASA Administrator choice in 2017. Given the chaos and amateurish way the Trump Landing Team (more like a "boarding party") conducted itself I was predisposed to think that they'd pick a loyalist with a high loser quotient. So I did some digging. He was actually interesting and had given some serious thought to space policy. Over the following months I'd show up at events in DC (with Jeff Foust et al) and we'd try every trick we knew to squeeze out an answer to variants on the "will you be the NASA Administrator?" question that we'd throw at him. Jim did the whole non-answer answer thing like a true pro. When his nomination was official I gave him a much closer look.

Important note: while I try to annoy everyone equally, I am a Democrat and make no secret of that. Jim is not a Democrat. Indeed he was elected from a rather conservative place with a voting record that makes me, with my leftie leanings, cringe quite a bit. But this is a company town and we try to work together despite the whole "Swamp" thing we have been hearing about. Alas, the rank and file Democrats - with Bill Nelson in the lead - went after him as being undesirable for the job etc. etc. I thought he was a breath of fresh air. So I decided to highlight his credentials - and put them in the context of other NASA Administrators. He got the job. The first day on the job he made an emphatic statement on diversity and climate change to allay concerns and he was off and running. And in an effort to broaden input and support Jim also put none other than Bill Nelson on the NASA Advisory Council.

I have been doing NASAWatch for a quarter of a century. After he was nominated people suggested that Jim might want to ping me for some ideas. So did a certain former NASA Administrator who I know rather well. I don't want to kiss and tell, but let's just say that Jim and I had some conversations. Quite a few - and most of them very long. He drank up everything I could offer about previous exploration initiatives and how NASA engages with the public. If you have read NASAWatch then you know about my rants in this regard. What I saw was someone with a genuine passion for space exploration and its value to the public. He did not have to learn that from me or anyone else. It had always been there.

Shortly after he showed up for work a Twitter account became active. Very active. Someone from NASA PAO actually called me and asked me if I was doing it. I laughed and said that I was flattered, but no, I was not tweeting for Jim. But I tweeted an inquiry to @JimBridenstine and got a response. It was Jim himself. NASA was not exactly ready for this. I loved it. Finally - an Administrator who took the issue of communicating personally.

Jim was presented with a human exploration program of record that had problems. Big problems. It still does. The White House threw the whole 2024 thing at him and he ran with it. But there were other things that he managed to pull off that people have not really noticed. While the Trump Administration did its level best to deny the impact of human influence on climate change at other agencies such as NOAA, somehow, NASA continued to do its science - and talk about it - with no censoring. Yes, some attempts were made to cancel some Earth science missions, but other than that, NASA seemed to have a Teflon coating when it came to openly talking about climate change. This most certainly required some deft thinking on Jim's part.

Jim also had to suddenly transform a sprawling agency and its workforce from one that worked in offices to one that worked from spare bedrooms as the Coronavirus pandemic descended upon our world. Like everyone else, Jim had to deal with his kids eating up the bandwidth for home schooling while he was running NASA on his cellphone in his living room. While this called for a lot unprecedented changes in the way people worked - it seems to have worked far better than anyone had a right to expect. And you can only get that when the person at the top is fully invested in its success.

To me, however, the thing that I hope that Jim will be remembered for is his embracing of education and diversity. Some people like to go back to his voting record. It is what it is - and to be fair, his job was to vote the way his constituents wanted him to vote. But as he arrived at NASA he listened to wiser minds and adjusted his world view accordingly at NASA. Although the "first woman and next man" line appears in everything the agency says, he ran with the notion that when Americans go back to the Moon they need to do so representing our nation as a whole. The "Artemis Generation" phrase also became popular - echoing the "Apollo generation" phrase commonly used to refer to people (like me) who grew up as we first reached out to the Moon half a century ago. After all, while we work here in the present on these programs, the next generation will truly inherit and expand upon the benefits that will result.

As Administrations change there is always a temptation to change the name of things to erase the previous Administration from people's minds and put a new mark on things representative of the incoming team. The "Apollo" program managed to keep its name under the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford administrations. The Orion spacecraft got its name under the Bush II Administration and will bear it under the Biden Administration. I certainly hope that the Biden folks have better things to do and let the Artemis program keep its name - and with it, Jim's contribution to keeping it alive.

Oh yes, Jim brought back the worm logo. And y'all know how I feel about that. ;-)

A lot of people (including me) would have liked to see Jim stay on. But Jim took himself out of possible consideration to stay on at NASA. Odds are that the Biden folks would not have given thought to this given the global house cleaning that they are implementing. That said, Jim's rationale was honorable. When the NASA Administrator sits in front of OMB at budget time, everyone needs to have no doubt of the Administrator's support of the current Administration's interest without having any concern of lingering prior policies. He simply shut down pointless speculation by saying that he was moving on. He wanted NASA to have the best Administrator that the Biden Administration could find.

Jim now has the distinction (I think) of being the youngest former NASA Administrator. We have certainly not heard the last of him. I wish him well.

Ad Astra Jim. You done good.

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This page contains a single entry by Keith Cowing published on January 17, 2021 3:42 PM.

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