Three-term lawmaker has supported commercial space ventures and traditional manned exploration programs
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, an Oklahoma Republican with a record supporting both commercial space ventures and traditional manned exploration programs, appears to be the leading candidate to become the next NASA administrator, according to people familiar with the matter.
The lawmaker’s name emerged early during the Trump administration transition process, and he has been interviewed by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, these people said. But they emphasized that Mr. Bridenstine, a former Navy pilot who has actively sought the position, still is waiting for a final signoff by President-elect Donald Trump and top aides.
A third-term congressman from Tulsa and an outspoken Trump supporter before the general election, Mr. Bridenstine also has been considered and interviewed as a possible nominee for Air Force Secretary.
But Sen. Jim Inhofe, Oklahoma’s senior GOP Senator, has expressed opposition to such a choice for political and policy reasons, according to two people familiar with the details. And transition officials believe others are more likely to be tapped for the Air Force job, these people said.
An announcement about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s leadership could come as early as next week, according to aerospace industry officials and others tracking the process, though they cautioned the timetable may stretch and the outcome could change.
On Saturday, Trump transition officials didn’t have any immediate comment.
Picking Rep. Bridenstine to run NASA could help bridge some of the deep policy and philosophical disagreements that have split the Trump transition effort involving the agency. Most members of the team assigned to NASA are associated with big-ticket programs favored by longstanding agency contractors, while a separate faction wants to emphasize commercial initiatives and novel funding strategies.
Mr. Pence is expected to play a major role in the expected debates over space policy, but the NASA chief’s primary challenge will be balancing such competing demands for resources. The incoming NASA administrator, among other things, will wrestle with whether U.S. astronauts should return to the surface of the moon and pick preparatory missions targeting ultimate manned voyages to Mars.
Mr. Bridenstine has a history of backing commercial space tugs and taxis to ferry cargo and eventually U.S. astronauts to the international space station. But he also is considered a proponent of existing exploration programs backed by Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and other legacy contractors.
Trump transition leaders want to meld elements of each approach to reduce overall acquisition costs and more-effectively manage civil and military launch programs.
As a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the Science, Space and Technology Committee, the lawmaker has dealt extensively with space issues. He has a reputation for promoting U.S. space supremacy and more-resilient satellite networks, while highlighting efforts by the Chinese and other countries to threaten American assets in orbit.
Rep. Bridenstine earlier this year introduced comprehensive legislation spanning everything from mining the moon to controlling space junk and called for Congress to provide NASA with stability and clear priorities. The agency “must not be a jack-of-all-trades,” according to his website explaining the provisions, rather it ought to be “committed to a space pioneering doctrine” aiming to land humans on Mars.
Along with senior transition officials, Mr. Bridenstine doesn’t foresee current NASA strategies paving the way for effective exploration of the Red Planet. He has, however, underscored the importance of moon missions as steppingstones to manned deep-space probes.
Current NASA chief Charles Bolden, a former astronaut who has held the job since the start of President Barack Obama’s administration, has had an often contentious relationship with lawmakers. His efforts to ramp up commercial programs and devise ways to grapple with and study an asteroid prompted sharp bipartisan opposition, though tensions have cooled in recent years.
The anticipated personnel decision caps weeks of quiet but intense maneuvers by various industry factions pushing rival candidates for the head job at NASA and seeking to shape the direction of the agency.
Boeing and other legacy contractors have rallied behind Doug Cooke, a former senior NASA official under President George W. Bush, people with knowledge of the situation say. Mr. Cooke is known as a critic of some commercial initiatives. Many of those serving on the formal NASA transition team share those views, while favoring greater emphasis on manned exploration missions to the moon and deeper into the solar system. The plans are largely built around NASA’s proposed heavy lift rocket, dubbed the Space Launch System, and companion Orion capsule.
By contrast, champions of commercial space interests, including supporters of billionaire Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Blue Origin LLC, a closely held rocket-making company run by Amazon.com Inc.’s founder and chairman Jeff Bezos, favor less federal direction and more public-private partnerships, people with knowledge of the situation say. They have pushed hard for Mr. Bridenstine as a likely change agent, and at this point seem to have the upper hand, the people added.
Such groups include the Commercial Space Flight Federation, a leading trade group, and former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is a strong believer in aggressive space goals and serves as an adviser to Mr. Trump.
When it comes to budgets for weather satellites and climate change research, Mr. Bridenstine also has sought to stake out a middle ground between those who want to cut off funding and those demanding sharply increased budgets. In early December, he posted a blog noting that “I have never, nor would ever, advocate” cancellation of multibillion-dollar earth-observation systems, but he continued to argue that the government in the long run would save money by purchasing weather data from commercial sources.