It’s difficult to predict how long NASA will go without an official administrator. Bridenstine’s office said in a statement on Monday that the congressman “remains optimistic there will be a confirmation vote soon.” But the fierce opposition on Capitol Hill toward Bridenstine suggests that a leadership void is a better deal than Bridenstine at the helm.
Either way, NASA is by no means rudderless. Over the last year, the direction of the space agency has been steered by a federal advisory group called the National Space Council. The council had been around in some form or another since 1958, when NASA was established. It was last active under the administration of George H. W. Bush. Its purpose was to create one office, staffed with top leaders in the business, that would establish and coordinate the nation’s space goals. (For space-history buffs, here’s a deeper dive into the council.)
The Trump administration decided to formally resurrect the space council last summer and installed Pence as chairman. Since then, the National Space Council has been running the show, and most of the administration’s space-policy directives have come directly from the council.
Last October, during its inaugural meeting, Pence gave a speech that laid out laid out NASA’s long-term plans. The space agency would send humans to Mars, just as the previous administration had vowed, but it would put an emphasis on missions to the moon and near Earth, rather than to deep space. Last month, the council said it would organize a “users advisory group,” a collection of big names in the spaceflight industry that includes astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and the heads of SpaceX and Blue Origin.
The Trump administration seems to have revived the National Space Council for little reason other than the fact that previous Republican administrations have favored it. In the past, the council had flown mostly under the radar, as just another layer of bureaucracy. This time, it’s a much flashier affair. The longer NASA operates without a Trump-picked leader, the more the National Space Council becomes the face of the country’s space ambitions.
Lightfoot is stepping down as NASA grapples with the requests the Trump administration has made in its latest budget plan, released last month, and waits for Congress to put forth its own version. The space agency is also facing potential delays, some of them quite costly, in several programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble, and the Commercial Crew Program, the effort to launch humans to space on transport systems built by private companies.
“Policy and budget decisions are being made without someone in the driver’s seat,” says Phil Larson, the assistant dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Sciences. Larson previously worked for SpaceX and in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy under Obama. “Trump just highlighted space at last week’s Cabinet meeting, but who at NASA will then carry out his direction if there’s no political leadership? It’s a key question for our nation’s space future—one that the White House seems to be punting on.”
Despite the leadership vacuum, NASA has a pretty exciting coming months. In April, the agency plans to launch an exoplanet-finding spacecraft. In May, it will send a lander to Mars, and in late July or early August, a mission to the sun. It may not be clear who’s going to be running NASA in the near future, but NASA is still running.