Today, President Donald J. Trump nominated Oklahoma Republican Congressman James “Jim” Bridenstine to serve as the next administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the $18 billion-dollar US agency leading the federal government’s space exploration efforts. Bridenstine gained recognition during his three terms in Congress for pursuing legislation to enable the commercialization of space-based resources and other issues relating to the exploration and exploitation of the vast resources of outer space.

Representative Jim Bridenstine was the author and sponsor of the American Space Renaissance Act, H.R.4945 – 114th Congress (2015-2016), which is a comprehensive bill intended to broadly change US space policy to reflect new realities and national security priorities.  The bill stalled in committee, but it is worth reading key sections. Even though the authorship was necessarily the result of the work of many subject matter experts, and not penned directly by Rep. Bridenstine, it likely is an accurate roadmap to his thinking on key issues.  

The Act addresses NASA’s troubles squarely, stating that it is the sense of Congress that the “lack of consistency in leadership along with budget uncertainty in out-years makes it extremely difficult for NASA to have a clear purpose or mission.”  In that spirit, the bill sought to reorganize NASA, change and clarify its mission, privatize as many of its functions as possible, and standardize its  processes.In other words, reorganize and downsize NASA itself, and allow private industry to proceed with the broader mission.

It would appear that Rep. Bridenstine is convinced that the bureaucratic inefficiencies of NASA are strangling its potential.If NASA’s devolving progress in pursuing space travel is any indication,  Bridenstine may well be correct. This is particularly obvious when one considers the recent progress of private industry leaders like SpaceX and Blue Origin.

The nomination should be viewed in light of the recent announcement by President Trump’s administration of the formation of a National Space Council led by Vice President Pence and Executive Director Scott Pace, and populated with selected representatives from the government agencies who will serve on Council.The Council originated under the first President Bush, but has been defunct since 1993.The Council is expected to meet promptly;  sources say within the first two weeks of September.

The National Space Council led by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Executive Director Scott Pace will focus on defense and economic policy rather than science and exploration,  Autry said at the Space Technology and Investment Forum here.

Many believe that Bridenstine will favor a return to the Moon before we try to send humans to Mars, as President Obama pressed.Since the Moon is a logical candidate for a base of operations from which to launch exploratory missions to Mars, as well as a more achievable goal, it makes sense to return to the Moon before we attempt a mission to Mars.

Before running for Congress, Jim Bridenstine served as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum and Planetarium.  During that time, the White House described his activities as flying “counter-drug missions in Central and South America in the Navy Reserve.”  Prior to that, Bridenstine was on active duty with the Navy and flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He is currently serving in the 137th Special Operations Wing of the Oklahoma Air National Guard. Rep. Bridenstine graduated from Rice University with a triple major in business, economics, and psychology, and from Cornell University with an M.B.A.

Congressman Bridenstine’s nomination was almost immediately criticized by Florida’s two Senators, Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, as an attempt to politicize NASA.  The true core of their criticism would appear to be the possible political fallout they might expect from supporting Rep. Bridenstine’s nomination given his repeated comments questioning the reality of global warming.  The nomination is being portrayed in some contexts as an attempt to put politics over science.  This interpretation assumes the worst of all parties involved. 

Instead, the nomination appears in line with President Trump’s efforts to move towards a more laissez-faire governing regime in many areas, and away from bureaucrats controlling an all-encompassing regulatory state.  President Trump has demonstrated repeated successes in his business career and appears to be applying a CEO mindset of exiting inefficient and unprofitable endeavors. Frankly, the enormous capital and human risk and technical uncertainty involved in attempting space exploitation means that private investors will be unlikely to be able to calculate and accept the risk unless the governing legal regime operates with a high degree of certainty and is focused on enforcing private property rights with minimal regulation. 

Jim Bridenstine will need to be confirmed by the US Senate, and hearings should be expected before the end of the year.