NASA to get new administrator under Trump

August 16, 2017 GMT

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration appears close to naming Oklahoma U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a military aviator and Rice University graduate, to become the next NASA administrator, according to two industry sources.

NASA officials declined comment Wednesday, directing inquiries to the White House, where officials indicated only that an announcement could be pending. Bridenstine’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

But two industry officials who have worked with the space agency said Bridenstine’s nomination has been widely regarded as virtually certain for several weeks. The sources requested anonymity because they are not cleared to publicly discuss the nomination.

The NASA Watch website, citing anonymous sources, reported Tuesday that the three-term congressman would get the nod to lead the agency, with former NASA and industry official John Schumacher as his deputy.

Schumacher is currently a vice president at Aerojet Rocketdyne, a leading contractor on the Space Launch System, NASA’s powerful next-generation, deep-space rocket.

The website said that a formal announcement is expected in September, possibly after Labor Day.

Bridenstine is a pilot in the U.S. Navy Reserve who has shown a deep interest in the future of American space exploration. He introduced legislation last year called the American Space Renaissance Act designed to “permanently secure the United States of America as the preeminent spacefaring nation.”

He also helped secure funding for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. SpaceNews named him one of five game changers in the world in space in 2015.

Seen as a booster of military, commercial and government space programs, Bridenstine has received enthusiastic support in the private space industry, which has become an important player in the U.S. space program.

“He’s been a great ally to the commercial industry,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which promotes commercial human spaceflight. “But it’s not just limited to us. He doesn’t see it as a ‘or’ proposition,” Stallmer said of the NASA-commercial space divide. “It’s an ‘and-or’ proposition.”

Bridenstine also has been a strong advocate of a strong role for the commercial space industry as NASA strives to return to the moon and then to Mars and beyond. “I think he’ll take a very open minded approach to what is the best path forward to achieving those goals,” Stallmer said. “There’s a lot of passion on both sides, and that’s a good thing.”

In a blog post last November, Bridenstine underscored the importance of regaining U.S. supremacy in space after years of lagging to the point where American astronauts now rely on Russian space launches.

“The United States of America is the only nation that can protect space for the free world and responsible entities, and preserve space for generations to come,” he wrote. “This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the moon is a path to being so.”

The space program also is expected to get a boost from Vice President Mike Pence, chairman of the newly reinstated National Space Council that was originally created by President George H.W. Bush, a Houstonian.

Though he has been a loyal supporter of President Donald Trump, Bridenstine served as co-chair of “Vets for Ted,” a military coalition supporting Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz for the Republican nomination in the 2016 presidential campaign.

His congressional campaign took in $45,000 in contributions for the 2016 election from persons and political action committees connected to the defense and aerospace industries, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As a decorated Navy pilot, Bridenstine has flowcombat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s also flown the F-18 Hornet fighter at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center. More recently, he flew the E-2C Hawkeye, a surveillance and operations command aircraft in anti-drug missions in central and South America.

Representing a congressional district based in Tulsa, he serves on the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee.