Donald J. Trump was elected President of the United States just over a week ago, and in that time a mad battle has erupted within the American aerospace community to identify candidates to become the next NASA administrator. What might those choices mean for the future of the country’s civilian space policy and manned spaceflight program? This parlor game has become doubly difficult following Wednesday’s news that Vice President-elect Mike Pence has stripped existing transition teams and removed lobbyists from those positions.
After multiple conversations with insiders, here’s the state of play as far as Ars can understand it as of Thursday morning. Following the lobbyist purge, Trump’s space policy team is led by Mark Albrecht, a veteran Republican space policy adviser and former executive secretary of the National Space Council, which last existed in 1992. This influential council served as a bridge between the civilian and military space activities, and one of Trump’s clearly defined goals is to restore the council, which Pence will likely lead.
Besides Pence and Albrecht, the other key player on Trump’s transition team on space policy is one of the six Vice Presidents, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who would likely try to shake things up at the space agency. Perhaps the biggest question facing NASA and space policy is whether Trump will opt for Gingrich-style outsider space policy, which seems consistent with the stated desire to “drain the swamp,” or whether he will give in to the pressures of big business and inertia.
Probably the main contender among the outsiders is a US Republican Representative from Oklahoma, Jim Bridenstine, who has quickly become a darling of the commercial space industry since his election to Congress. Through his American Space Renaissance Act and other legislation, Bridenstine sought to modernize U.S. national security, civil, and commercial space policies. This included streamlining regulations for aerospace companies seeking to conduct business in low Earth orbit and on the surface of the Moon.
Earlier this month, Bridenstine, a staunch conservative, gave a major speech to the Lunar Exploration Group in Washington DC calling on America to lead the world back to the moon for both geopolitical and commercial reasons. “The United States of America is the only nation that can protect space for the free world and preserve responsible entities and space for future generations,” he said. “This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation, and the moon is a path to being that.”
In addition to NASA administrator, Bridenstine’s name has also been put forward for Secretary of the Air Force, and he will likely be considered for both, given that he has endorsed Trump. While he initially supported Ted Cruz for president, Bridenstine did not hesitate to shift his support to Trump as the Republican nominee. Perhaps most notably, he publicly criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) after Ryan told members in October to do what was best for themselves. “Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan is not for Trump, then I am not for Paul Ryan.” Bridenstine tweeted at that moment.
To further bolster his bona fide outsiders, Bridenstine has pledged to serve only three terms in the House, and has vowed to step down in 2018.
Sources have told Ars that Bridenstine, with its lunar focus and pro-commercialization views, would likely emphasize public-private partnerships embraced by the Trump campaign. In addition, he is seen as an “agent of change” in the form of a Gingrich, who would try to push back the sprawling NASA bureaucracy. This philosophy could favor companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance and others that develop private launch systems and spacecraft and can offer services to the government at a significantly lower cost than NASA’s own vehicles, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft.
Charles Miller, a Washington-based space policy consultant and former consultant to NASA, told Ars that this approach seems more in line with Trump’s campaign. “The biggest opportunity for transformation in space that a Trump administration is likely to be interested in is accelerating low-cost access to space,” Miller said. “This includes things like collaborating with SpaceX, Blue Origin and ULA on reusable launch vehicles. This would demonstrate US dominance of the space frontier, have huge national security benefits and drive economic growth.”
Unlike the outsiders, there are several candidates being pushed by NASA’s more traditional, large aerospace contractors for the job of administrator. These interests would prefer to leave NASA’s big government approach to space travel largely intact. Names proposed include former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin; former space shuttle commander Eileen Collins, who spoke at the Republican National Convention this summer; and Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.
Ars understands that Pace may be at the top of some key decision makers’ list. Still, he could prove to be a tough choice for a Trump administration looking to recreate Washington DC and move away from the political establishment. Not only does Pace currently work at a university in the nation’s capital, he has served George W. Bush on space policy and served as chief space adviser to Republican nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. In addition, according to Federal Election Commission reports, Pace contributed to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Romney in 2012, and Jeb Bush in 2016.
But as a “stay the course” driver, Pace appeals to the traditional space powers that have significant influence over the political establishment. In late October at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Pace largely endorsed NASA’s current direction, including development of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. “It was really, really good,” Pace said of a policy developed by Congress and the Obama White House for human spaceflight. In this approach, Pace shares the views of many influential members of Congress and interest groups for traditional space organizations such as the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.
That’s not to say that Pace wouldn’t change anything at all. He, and others, including “outsiders” like Bridenstine, have argued for a return to the moon rather than the direct trip to Mars that NASA has touted. Pace has suggested that the United States has a vested interest in ensuring the stability of space from low Earth orbit to the Moon, known as cislunar space. It should lead to international cooperation to explore and develop this region, he argued. “I would like to see the United States become the largest space power through cislunar space, because I think that’s a set of measures that we need, with communications, navigation and transportation, and we need to have other countries working with us,” he said at the October forum.
So the real question is whether the Trump administration will try to cut costs and privatize more of NASA’s operations, or whether it will keep the current larger government approach to manned spaceflight. Answers will be provided when a new administrator is nominated to replace Charles Bolden. Of course, this cannot happen for months. Until then, the party game will continue.