But most of the country’s space policy and priorities under Trump have emerged from the National Space Council, a high-level advisory body chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. The National Space Council previously existed in one form or another, with varying amounts of effectiveness, since NASA was first established in 1958. The current administration resurrected it soon after Trump took office.
In his new role, Bridenstine will likely be taking cues from the council and its members, which also include the secretaries of several departments—including State, Defense, and Commerce—and the heads of national-security offices.
Bridenstine takes the helm during an exciting but tumultuous time at NASA. The agency is launching several new missions this year. A new exoplanet-hunting spacecraft just launched into space on Wednesday. A spacecraft will leave for Mars next month, and another to the sun in the summer. But NASA is also facing project delays and reports of poor management by its contractors. This year’s scheduled test flights of crewed and uncrewed missions by SpaceX and Boeing, an effort paid for by NASA, may get pushed back. The agency’s next space telescope, the James Webb, is facing cost and schedule overruns.
Bridenstine was elected to the House of Representatives in 2012 to represent Oklahoma’s first district, and serves on the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology and the Armed Services Committee. Before Congress, Bridenstine served as the executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum, flew combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan as a Navy pilot, and studied business and economics in college.
Unlike his colleagues from states like Florida, Alabama, and Maryland, the homes of major NASA facilities, Bridenstine has few space interests to defend in Oklahoma. But he has shown an outsize interest in the space industry, and in April 2016 introduced a bill called the American Space Renaissance Act, which included various reforms to the U.S. space program. “Friends, this is our Sputnik moment,” Bridenstine said then. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation.” Later, he said space issues mattered to him because “my constituents get killed in tornadoes.”
Bridenstine’s road to the top job at NASA has been bumpy. The White House first nominated him in September 2017. Two confirmation hearings by Senate committees followed, both contentious. Senate Democrats and some Republicans criticized the selection of a candidate with no professional science experience. The previous administrator, Bolden, was an astronaut, they pointed out.
Democrats questioned Bridenstine over several controversial statements he’d made in the past. Bridenstine has called the Supreme Court decision to legalize same-sex marriage a “disappointment,” and described an executive order from Obama that told public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms of their choice as “lawless federal bullying.” In 2013, Bridenstine said rising global temperatures were a product of solar activity and ocean cycles, and not human activity. The congressman walked back some of this view during his hearings for the NASA job, saying he believes people have contributed to climate change, but stopped short of saying they were the main driver.