NASA at 60-something

Former NASA administrator Sean O’Keefe (center) speaks at a July 23 CSIS panel, flanked by current NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine (left) and former administrator Charlie Bolden. (credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

It’s pretty clear when to celebrate a person’s birthday. NASA, though, is different.

Do you mark the anniversary of the agency’s birth on July 29, the day in 1958 that President Eisenhower signed into law the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established the space agency? Or on October 1, the date two months later that NASA formally started operations, succeeding the National Advisory Council on Aeronautics? Or, perhaps, both?

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) chose the former date last week when it held an event celebrating NASA’s 60th anniversary. The agency’s current administrator, Jim Bridenstine, took the stage along with two of his recent predecessors, Charlie Bolden and Sean O’Keefe. And the organizers promised there would be birthday cake.

“Being at the helm of NASA at its 60th anniversary is a bit humbling,” Bridenstine, administrator of the agency for just the last three months, said in a speech that opened the event. That speech was largely a historical one, looking back to the origins of NASA and even NACA and working its way through World War II and the Space Race to the present.

“We’re here to talk about the 60th anniversary and there’s a lot of history that I just discussed: some of it we like, some of it is not so fun to think about,” he said. “But it’s also true that NASA has an amazing future and I want to be able to talk about that too. In the coming months you’re going to hear a lot about that.”

There wasn’t a lot of specifics about that “amazing future” that Bridenstine offered at the event. However, and perhaps not surprising given the host organization’s interest in national security issues, there was discussion about one non-NASA space issue that’s been a hot topic this summer: the Space Force.

“I hear all the time, people ask me, ‘Well, are you going to be the leader of the Space Force?’” Bridenstine said. “And I’m here to tell you that’s not what NASA is and that’s not what NASA does.”

Despite that statement, Bridenstine, until April a congressman who had been very active on space policy issues, was more than happy to offer his thoughts in the panel discussion that followed about creating a separate military branch devoted to space. “I want to be clear about the Space Force. I support it 100 percent,” he said, describing his past votes backing a “Space Corps” in the US Air Force.

“The Space Force actually already exists inside the Air Force,” he said, an argument some have used to oppose the creation of a separate military branch for space. “At what level is Air Force leadership paying attention to space? Now I will tell you that they are paying attention to it, without question they are paying attention to it. Has that always been the case? I will tell you that many members of Congress don’t think that has always been the case.”

Bridenstine went on to discuss threats to space assets, particularly from China and Russia, even as dependence on those space capabilities grows. “In my opinion it’s well past due to have a standalone force capable of preparing the workforce to ultimately protect our assets in space,” he said. “Again, I want to be clear because this is important, this is not what NASA does.”

“I should stop there,” he said, wrapping up a comment during the panel discussion that ran for more than six minutes even as he seemed willing to talk for even longer. Neither Bolden, a retired Marine Corps general, nor O’Keefe, a former Secretary of the Navy, weighed in on the utility of a Space Force.

When the discussion did return to the real space agency versus the proposed space force, one theme that did emerge was the importance of international cooperation whatever NASA’s future plans are in Earth orbit and beyond. “It takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of effort, to try and find that common position that can be developed for mutual advantage,” O’Keefe said. “You feel like you’re in binding arbitration, negotiating every element that is involved, but it’s worth it.”

“I think, in all deference to the State Department and the Department of Defense, one of the strongest purveyors of soft power for this nation is NASA,” Bolden said. “If you want an example of it, it’s the sustainability of the International Space Station over the last 17, 18 years in spite of everything else that goes on down here on the planet.”

That “everything else” includes the strained relations with Russia that led to concerns, during Bolden’s time as administrator, about the future of the ISS and Russian participation in it. He defended that cooperation when moderator Todd Harrison of CSIS noted that no African-American NASA astronauts have flown on a Soyuz spacecraft and that one such astronaut, Jeanette Epps, was removed early this year from a mission to the ISS under circumstances that remain unexplained (even to Epps, according to a recent interview.) “What’s going on?” Harrison asked.

“I think it’s absurd” that the Russians are refusing to fly African Americans, Bolden said, citing his long experience working with Russians. “I never saw any indication the whole time I was the NASA administrator, from communicating with the head of Roscosmos and cosmonauts themselves, that they ever had any problems at all with anybody that we decided was going to fly.”

Bridenstine, who said he was unaware of any such problems, focused instead on the future of international cooperation in NASA’s human exploration plans. He had just returned from the Farnborough International Airshow in England, where he met with the heads of the European Space Agency and other national space agencies.

“It was astonishing to me how many of them were saying, ‘Tell us what you need. We’re ready to go,’” he recalled. “I was going expecting I was going to have to do a hard sell. They’re ready, they’re just looking for Americans to say, ‘This is what we need to do,’ and they’ll pull the trigger.”

Any discussion of international cooperation, though, inevitably brings up the issue of cooperation—or the lack thereof—with China. For years, the so-called “Wolf amendment,” named after then-head of the House appropriations subcommittee whose oversight included NASA, has severely restricted any bilateral cooperation between NASA and China in spaceflight.

Those restrictions have loosened a bit over the years, though. “The prohibition is not against collaboration in science. The prohibition is against in collaboration in human spaceflight,” Bolden said, citing cooperation with China in science and aeronautics after notification of Congress. “That was the last thing that Congressman Wolf did before he left the Congress: he softened the language.”

Bridenstine said he just notified Congress of his plans to meet with Chinese space officials at the International Astronautical Congress in early October in Germany. “We’re going to have that dialogue,” he said. As for more substantial changes to that policy, he cited issues such as intellectual property challenges and human rights issues that would have to be resolved in order to enable deeper cooperation. “That deal is going to be well above my pay grade.”

“I think it’s inevitable” that China will become a more prominent partner in spaceflight, O’Keefe argued. China, he acknowledged, has “an international reputation for trying to derive information from all manner of sources,” an allusion to allegations of hacking and industrial espionage. But, since NASA is required under its charter to make information freely available, we “might as well be working with folks to a common objective.”

What advice did the two former NASA administrators have for the new one? O’Keefe offered fairly general insights. “The highs are really high and the lows are really low, and there’s not a hell of a lot in between,” he said. The employees at NASA “are an amazing group of extraordinary professionals that are incredibly gifted people” when focused on a particular objective.

Bolden offered more of a critical self-assessment of his tenure as administrator. “I was the worst, the absolute worst administrator the agency could have ever had my first two years. I was lousy because I did not understand Washington and I did not understand the politics, the system, everything else,” he said.

“It was not until I got through that first two years of being the ‘rogue administrator’ that I recognized that,” he continued. “What did I believe in? Why did I come?”

“Once I realized that my job was to take care of the people, and they would take care of everything else, it became the best job, one of the best jobs I ever had in my life,” he said. “For me, that was the biggest thing, just being around the greatest group of people in world—next to Marines.”

With that advice in mind, and his own plans as administrator taking shape, Bridenstine was optimistic about NASA’s next 60 years. “There is no shortage of opportunities in the future because of what’s happening, the transformational capabilities that have just about probably in the last ten years because of the trail that these gentlemen have blazed,” he said, referring to his fellow panelists. “If managed correctly, the future is very, very exciting.”

With that, the 90-minute event wrapped up. It was time for that NASA birthday cake—only to find that there was “a problem with the bakery,” according to Harrison. Perhaps they can get that resolved in time for NASA’s other birthday October 1.


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