Bridenstine has supported this shift in mission. “This is our Sputnik moment,” he wrote in a blog post in November, after his Senate hearing. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation and the moon is a path to being so.”
Bolden said he has “no opinion” of the candidate vying for his old job. “I’m neither a fan nor a foe,” Bolden said. “I told him I will be one of his biggest supporters if he’s confirmed, as long as he takes care of the people and sticks to the mission. So he won’t hear any complaints out of me.”
NASA has mostly escaped federal scrutiny compared to other government agencies in the last year. Last spring, the Trump administration proposed $19.1 billion in funding for the agency for the 2018 fiscal year, a nearly 3 percent decrease in funding from the year before, but overall “a very positive budget,” according to Lightfoot. Pence seems to have a larger-than-usual interest in space policy compared to other vice presidents, and has spent the last year touring NASA facilities, speaking favorably about the agency. “It’s always a good thing when you don’t get a lot of attention from the administration, as long as the budget is good,” Bolden said.
The next NASA administrator would take the reins during an exciting but stressful year for the agency. In 2018, NASA plans to launch TESS, an exoplanet-hunting spacecraft; InSight, a lander destined for Mars; and the Parker Solar Probe, a mission to the sun. NASA expects SpaceX and Boeing, its commercial partners in developing the next generation of crew-transportation systems, to start flying test missions this year, but a federal-oversight review has found the program could face major delays.
Bolden, meanwhile, said he’s enjoying his return to the private sector. The first African American to serve in the role, Bolden is, among other things, working on a children’s book about his life, from his childhood in segregated South Carolina through his years as a NASA astronaut.
I asked Bolden what advice he would give to his successor. “Take care of your people,” he said. “That’s the administrator’s job, to shield the agency from outside problems ... That’s what I sought to do. I sought to be the face and and voice of NASA so that people down in the organization can get their jobs done.”
Bolden said the next NASA chief will have to work carefully to maintain the country’s relationships with other space agencies, which require “a lot of care and feeding,” including Roscosmos, the Russian agency. Back home, he said he hopes the future administrator focuses on “making sure diversity and inclusion remain a hallmark of the agency.”
“That may be a little difficult in this administration, but it’s absolutely essential for NASA because that’s what makes them who they are,” Bolden said.