Tulsan Jim Bridenstine leading NASA back to moon 50 years after Apollo 11

Jim Bridenstine, a Jenks High School graduate and former congressman, leads NASA as it celebrates the 50th anniversary of the moon landing and looks to the future of space exploration.



Bill Ingalls/NASA

Fifty years ago this month, NASA astronaut Neil Armstrong famously planted his size 9 ½ boot on the surface of the moon, ending a decade-long space race while captivating a worldwide audience of 600 million people as he took those first steps on July 20, 1969.

There were five additional Apollo moon landings before the program was cut short in 1972. No one has walked on the lunar surface since.

That will soon change, according to Vice President Mike Pence, who announced March 26 that American astronauts will return to the moon in 2024 by “any means necessary.”

Once the lunar lander’s engines are disengaged — and, this time, a female astronaut steps off the ladder — it will be one small step for NASA as it prepares for the giant leap of manned missions from the moon to Mars.

“When the vice president made that announcement it reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s moment to announce we’re going to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade and return them safely to the Earth,” says Tulsan and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine. “That was a bold kind of declaration, and what we saw the vice president do recently was a similarly bold declaration. I can tell you, folks at NASA are extremely excited.”

It has been just over a year since Bridenstine was sworn in to be NASA’s 13th administrator. He’s the first former congressman to be put in charge of the agency that employs 17,000 scientists, engineers, technicians and more.

To attain the position, Bridenstine had to go through “a very difficult” confirmation process during which even some of his allies questioned his credentials and capabilities since most of the previous administrators had extensive scientific backgrounds. In contrast, Bridenstine’s background is varied. The 1998 Rice University graduate served in the Navy from 1998-2007. He earned an MBA from Cornell University in 2009.

But Bridenstine also had many supporters.

“I think even at the time if you go back and look at his past, the things he invested in, his work even as a college student and the way he committed himself to study and be prepared, he was always preparing himself for a task like this, and when the opportunity came along, he was ready,” says Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who spoke in favor of Bridenstine on the Senate floor during the confirmation process. Bridenstine was confirmed April 23, 2018.

Bridenstine was born June 15, 1975, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Two years later, his family briefly relocated to Wisconsin before moving to Arlington, Texas, when he was 4.

It was around then Bridenstine started dreaming of becoming a pilot. His bedroom walls were soon completely covered with airplane posters.

He and his father often attended air shows at Carswell Air Force Base in neighboring Fort Worth. As a kindergartner, he drew a picture of himself in front of a plane that stated, “I want to be a pielot.” Years later he made it. His mom presented him the forgotten self-portrait at his winging ceremony as a Naval aviator.

At 15, his family relocated to Tulsa and Bridenstine attended Jenks High School, where he graduated in 1993. After completing a triple major (economics, psychology and business) at Rice University, Bridenstine became a Naval pilot, flying E-2C Hawkeyes in Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11. After returning stateside, he flew F18 Hornets for three years at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center in Nevada, which is the parent command to Top Gun, the Fighter Weapons School.

In 2007, he and his wife, Michelle, had recently become parents when he took a job in Orlando, Florida, flying flight simulators for the Navy down the road from the Kennedy Space Center.

Their time in Florida was brief as they soon relocated to Tulsa to be closer to Michelle’s family. Bridenstine became executive director of the Tulsa Air and Space Museum.

“What really brought us back was that I loved Tulsa when I was there. My wife was born at Saint Francis Hospital and her whole family was there,” says the 44-year-old whose wife and three children continue to live in Jenks, while he spends most of his days in D.C.

In 2012, Bridenstine was elected to represent Oklahoma’s 1st District in the House. He ran unopposed in the next two elections. Due to his current role, Bridenstine declined to talk about his motivations to run for office. Of his 2016 win, the Tulsa World quoted Bridenstine as saying, “I will continue my work to promote economic freedom, national security and constitutional integrity over the next two and a half years.”

Following his election, he was named to the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the Armed Services Committee, which deals with the national security space capabilities. He served on the Space Subcommittee of the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA. He also chaired the Environment Subcommittee on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. About 40% of NOAA’s budget encompasses space-related activities.

In 2016, the culmination of that work was his introduction of H.R. 4945, also known as the American Space Renaissance Act.

“It was probably the most comprehensive space reform bill that has ever been written,” says Bridenstine. “It was over a hundred pages long, and it touched every bit of commercial space, civil space and national security space ... What we wanted to do is have this repository of the best space reform ideas, and then when bills came to the floor that we knew were going to pass, we could make amendments and/or embed in those bills provisions that we thought were important for America’s space agenda.”

Bridenstine says he believes it was his work on H.R. 4945 that put him on the radar of Pence, who chaired President Donald Trump’s revived National Space Council.

“I think there were a lot of folks in the space community that had seen my work as a member of Congress who had made the recommendation. I know there were members of the Senate who had seen my work and made the same recommendation,” he says. “As far as what all went into it, I don’t know. I’ll just tell you this: I’m thrilled, and it’s the honor of a lifetime.”

One of his biggest supporters was Buzz Aldrin, a legendary member of the Apollo 11 crew. He co-authored a glowing op-ed endorsing Bridenstine for the position. In it, he compared the then-congressman to legendary NASA administrator James Webb, who oversaw NASA during the Apollo program.

“It’s pretty amazing, actually. He’s a national treasure,” Bridenstine says of Aldrin. “Everybody knows Buzz Aldrin. He actually came out to the Tulsa Air and Space Museum when I was the executive director there. We did a big event for the museum, so I knew him from before. He knew where my heart was, and certainly he understood what I was trying to achieve. It was really amazing to have a guy like him support my confirmation.”

A little over a year after his 50-49 Senate confirmation, Bridenstine returned to Capitol Hill to speak to many of those senators, but this time it was to discuss what it will take to accomplish the ambitious mission in five years.

NASA devoted around $20 billion to the Apollo missions. That is what it costs to annually operate the space agency today. The cost to send astronauts back to the moon in the next five years will cost NASA considerably more. However, in his May 1 testimony, Bridenstine said it will cost less than the reported additional $8 billion annually to fund the program.

“He’s doing a great job, and all the people who were his detractors early on are now supportive of him,” Lankford says. “They’ve seen him do a nonpartisan job trying to advance NASA and science. They’ve been very, very impressed with what he’s done as administrator.

“Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), unsolicited by me, came up and said, ‘This guy from Oklahoma is really doing a remarkable job for NASA, and I think you oughta know it.’”

It has been eight years since an American astronaut launched from American soil. Bridenstine says by the end of year NASA will resume manned launches from home to the International Space Station. The crew has been selected for that mission, but not yet for 2024. He says there is a “very diverse astronaut corps from which to select” when the time comes.

From there, training will intensify until they are buckled in and the countdown hits zero. Then the next stop is the south pole of the moon, “where there are hundreds of millions of tons of water ice, which represents life support,” he says.

“It’s also rocket fuel. Hydrogen and oxygen is rocket fuel. It’s the same rocket fuel that powered the space shuttle, and it’s the same rocket fuel that will power the Space Launch System — which is the largest rocket ever built — that we’re developing right now,” Bridenstine says. “We’re not just going to the moon, we’re going to the moon sustainably, we’re going to utilize that life support capability. We’re going to stay at the moon. The way we’re doing it now is entirely different than we’ve ever done it before, but it’s equally, if not more, bold.

“My goal is to achieve the president’s vision of a woman on the moon by 2024. That’s what we’re working to achieve.”

 

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