Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States a little more than a week ago, and in that time, a mad scramble has ensued within the US aerospace community to identify candidates to become the next NASA administrator. What might those picks mean for the future of the nation's civil space policy and human spaceflight program? This parlor game has become doubly difficult in the wake of news Wednesday that Vice President-elect Mike Pence gutted the existing transition teams and removed lobbyists from those positions.
After multiple discussions with insiders, here's the state of play as best as Ars can understand it as of Thursday morning. Following the lobbyist purge, Trump's space policy team is being led by Mark Albrecht, a long-time 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 nation's civil and military space activities, and one of Trump's clearly defined goals is to reinstate the council, which Pence would likely head.
Aside from Pence and Albrecht, the other key player in Trump's transition team with regard to space policy is one of its six vice chairs, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who would likely seek to shake things up at the space agency. Perhaps the biggest question facing NASA and space policy, then, is whether Trump will go for an outsider's space policy in the mode of Gingrich, which seems consistent with the stated desire to "drain the swamp," or whether he will accede to the pressures of big business and inertia.
Probably the leading contender among the outsiders is a US Republican Representative from Oklahoma, Jim Bridenstine, who since being elected to Congress has quickly become a darling of the commercial space industry. Through his American Space Renaissance Act and other legislation, Bridenstine has sought to modernize US national security, civil, and commercial space policy. This included streamlining regulations for aerospace companies wishing to do business in low Earth orbit and on the surface of the Moon.
Earlier this month, Bridenstine, a staunch conservative, delivered a major speech to the Lunar Exploration Group in Washington DC in which he called for 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 responsible entities and preserve space for generations to come," he said. "This is our Sputnik moment. America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation, and the Moon is a path to being so."
In addition to NASA administrator, Bridenstine's name has also been floated for Secretary of the Air Force, and he will likely get consideration for both, as he has supported Trump. Although he initially backed Ted Cruz for President, Bridenstine did not hesitate to shift his support Trump as the Republican nominee. Perhaps most prominently, he publicly criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) after Ryan told members in October that they needed to what was best for themselves. "Given the stakes of this election, if Paul Ryan isn't for Trump, then I'm not for Paul Ryan." Bridenstine tweeted at the time.
Further strengthening his outsider bonafides, Bridenstine has committed to serving only three terms in the House, and he has vowed to step down in 2018.
Bridenstine speaks at the Space Symposium's Space Foundation meeting in April, 2016.
Enlarge / Bridenstine speaks at the Space Symposium's Space Foundation meeting in April, 2016.
Sources have told Ars that Bridenstine, with his focus on the Moon and pro-commercialization views, would likely emphasize public-private partnerships espoused by the Trump campaign. Additionally, he is seen as an "agent of change" in the mold of a Gingrich, who would seek to pare back the sprawling NASA bureaucracy. This philosophy may potentially favor companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, United Launch Alliance, and others that are privately developing launch systems and spacecraft and could offer those services to the government for substantially 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 adviser to NASA, told Ars that this approach would seem to be more consistent 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 would include things like partnering with SpaceX, Blue Origin and ULA on reusable launch vehicles. This would demonstrate American dominance of the space frontier, have tremendous national security benefits, as well as drive economic growth."
In contrast to the outsiders, there are several candidates being pushed for the job of administrator by NASA's more traditional, large aerospace contractors. These interests would prefer to leave NASA's big-government approach to spaceflight largely intact. Among the names being suggested 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.
Elon Musk of SpaceX, left, and Scott Pace, right, testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Defense under the Committee on Appropriations in 2014.
Enlarge / Elon Musk of SpaceX, left, and Scott Pace, right, testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Defense under the Committee on Appropriations in 2014.
George Washington University
Ars understands that Pace may be atop the list of some key decision-makers. Even so, he could prove a difficult choice for a Trump administration that wants to remake Washington DC and move away from the political establishment. Not only does Pace presently work at a university in the nation's capital, he has also served George W. Bush on space policy and was 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney's chief space adviser. Additionally, according to Federal Election Commission reports, Pace has contributed to the presidential campaigns of George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, Romney in 2012, and Jeb Bush in 2016.
Yet as a "stay the course" administrator, Pace appeals to the traditional aerospace powers that have considerable influence over the political establishment. In late October at the Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, Pace largely endorsed NASA's present direction, including the development of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft. "It was really quite 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 as well advocacy groups for traditional aerospace organizations such as the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration.
Europe wants a happy little village on the Moon. The USA may go along.
That's not to say Pace would change nothing at all. He, and others including "outsiders" like Bridenstine, have advocated a return to the Moon instead of the direct Journey 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 out to the Moon, known as cislunar space. It should lead an international collaboration to explore and develop this region, he argued. "I would like to see the United States be the major space power out through cislunar space because I think that’s a range of action we need to have, with communication, navigation and, transportation, and we need to have other countries working with us," he said during the October forum.
The real question, then, is whether the Trump administration will seek to trim costs and privatize more of NASA's activities, or whether it will retain the current, bigger government approach to human spaceflight. Answers will be on offer whenever a new administrator is nominated to replace Charles Bolden. This may not happen for months, of course. Until then, the parlor game will continue.