At 12PM ET today, Jim Bridenstine officially stepped down from his role as NASA administrator. During his time at the agency, the former Oklahoma congressman and Naval aviator used his political chops to drum up bipartisan support for the Trump administration’s Artemis program, the agency’s cornerstone initiative to land humans on the Moon by 2024 — a deadline widely viewed as nearly impossible to meet.
In anticipation of President Joe Biden taking office and the Senate transitioning to Democratic control, Bridenstine, a Republican, spent his final days as administrator making one last push for the Artemis program, a parting bid to insulate the program from potential cancellation. Last week, he met with top Democrats including Sen. Patrick Leahy, who’s expected to become the second-highest-ranking official in the Senate once Biden takes office.
“We have done everything we can to build the consensus necessary for this program to be long-term sustainable,” Bridenstine told The Verge in an interview before heading out. “I think as hard as we’ve worked to build the consensus over the last three years, I think we’re in good shape.”
The multibillion-dollar Artemis program will face a new administration focused on building consensus around other priorities, including battling the coronavirus pandemic and tackling climate change.
Already, Congress has balked at the idea of a 2024 deadline for landing humans on the Moon: of the $3.3 billion NASA said it needed for next year’s budget to stay on track for 2024, Congress came up with $850 million. But Bridenstine still views that as a win: during a pandemic, NASA’s budget is billions more than what it was when he took office.
The $850 million for NASA marks the first time Congress agreed to fund a human lunar lander since the Apollo program. “That’s notable,” Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society, said in an interview. “It didn’t get that far during the constellation program, the last time we tried going to the Moon.”
But it also shows NASA “couldn’t successfully make the case to Congress as to why they needed the money now, and why they needed it for 2024,” Dreier said.
On Wednesday, Bridenstine tweeted a final message as administrator in an emotional three-minute video, emphasizing that “eliminating division” is key to enabling long-term success for Artemis and welcoming the next administrator who will inherit the program.
“With that I say farewell. And I’ll tell ya, when a new team comes in, give them all your support. Because they need it, they deserve it, and of course what we’re trying to do, we’re not only crossing multiple administrations, but multi-decade and multigenerational,” he said.
It has been my great honor to serve as your @NASA Administrator. I will miss the amazing NASA family and will forever be grateful for my time at this incredible agency. Ad astra. pic.twitter.com/Zba4MTawPV— Jim Bridenstine (@JimBridenstine) January 20, 2021
Steve Jurczyk, NASA’s former number two under Bridenstine, assumed the role of acting administrator at noon once Biden was sworn in.
President Biden is expected to pick a woman to fill the NASA administrator role, which has only been occupied by men since the agency’s founding in 1958. His transition team for NASA, led by the director of the National Air and Space Museum, Ellen Stofan, has spent over a month reviewing the agency’s top programs and interviewing agency personnel, but it hasn’t released any hints on where Biden will officially stand on space policy issues.
Bridenstine told The Verge he plans to take a job in his home state of Oklahoma but declined to specify what that job will be. Asked if he’s running for office again, he said “Oh, no no no. No. I’ll tell ya, I have no desire to run for office.”
“They say never say never, but it would take something significant to get me back into politics. I’ve never been so happy to not be in politics.”
In the Twitter video, where he choked up thanking NASA employees, Bridenstine ended with a simple message: “Go get ‘em. Go NASA. Ad astra.”