When Jim Bridenstine was nominated by President Trump to be the next NASA administrator, a contingent of “smart” media outfits immediately criticized him. See, Bridenstine wasn’t enough of a credentialed “expert” in science for them.
NASA didn’t need a chief scientist. It needed a leader with a vision to move more quickly and on budget. Public enthusiasm for NASA waned during Obama years, which saw attempts to cancel America’s exploration program and pursue missions that didn’t generate excitement. The rise of the “space billionaires” perceived to fill that gap. Through their celebrity, they did help reinvigorate American interest in space exploration — even though they hype doing things NASA achieved decades ago.
That’s why NASA needed a leader who could harness that enthusiasm but remind the public of the great successes NASA has already achieved. More important, NASA needed a leader to talk about how far it planned to reach with America’s space program.
A year into Bridenstine’s tenure, positive change is in the record books on one of NASA’s most important programs: the space launch system (SLS). This program is designed to take America back to the moon and, ultimately, Mars. SLS is the most powerful rocket in the world and the only system capable of launching astronauts to deep space. That’s why it’s so critical to the Artemis program launched by Bridenstine at the president’s direction earlier this year.
With Bridenstine at the helm of NASA, the SLS program has accelerated production of the powerful rocket. The SLS that will launch astronauts to the moon in 2022 is averaging a 50% improvement compared with the maiden rocket’s production. Work also is starting on the third SLS rocket that will carry the first astronauts back to the surface of the moon in 2024.
In exciting anticipation, the core stage, or backbone of the SLS rocket, for the Artemis-1 mission is almost complete, bringing this first-of-its-kind rocket closer to launch pad.
Strong leadership from the top of NASA is driving standardizing procedures to increase quality and efficiency.
Prior to Bridenstine’s arrival, programs like this as well as Orion, Commercial Crew and the James Webb Space Telescope had struggled with schedule challenges. The improvements in SLS illustrate his proactive leadership and drive lessons for these other programs. He deserves as much credit as anyone for the culture change and focus on setting big goals and driving the energy of the NASA team to meet them. The early results speak for themselves.