Ever since the White House dramatically accelerated NASA’s lunar mission this spring, mandating the agency get people there by 2024 instead of 2028 as previously planned, Bridenstine has been under enormous pressure to meet a goal many think impossible. His orders are not only to deliver a long-shot moon-landing coup, but also to inject a heavy dose of Trumpian impatience into an agency the White House thinks has become too bureaucratic and risk averse.
To drum up support and the financial resources needed for what NASA calls its Artemis program, after the twin sister of Apollo, Bridenstine spent much of the summer touring the country in a 10-city swing like a one-man rock band.
Now that Congress is back in session, Bridenstine has made repeated pilgrimages to Capitol Hill, where he’s continued to sing his refrain to committee chairs and backbenchers alike, seeking votes for funding in every corridor for a program that would, as he repeatedly says, “send the next man and the first woman to the surface of the moon.”
In all, he’s visited with 30 members of Congress or their staffs, selling Republicans and Democrats on the moon program and, perhaps more important, the additional $1.6 billion in funding the White House has asked for in next year’s budget.
It’s a small down payment for a program estimated to cost between $20 billion and $30 billion, and a crucial test for an administrator seeking to carry out the White House’s wishes. If he can’t get the initial $1.6 billion, well, as the space adage goes: no bucks, no Buck Rogers.
“He’s really selling, as he needs to,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “If they can’t get [the $1.6 billion,] they’re not going anywhere by 2024.”
The technical challenge of landing on the moon is hard enough. Recently, spacecraft from India and Israel tried and failed — and neither of them were carrying people. Given the enormous difficulties of landing softly on another celestial body, even Ken Bowersox, NASA’s head of human exploration, recently told a congressional hearing that he was doubtful the agency could meet the 2024 deadline.
While it is good to have “an aggressive goal,” he said, he “wouldn’t bet my oldest child’s upcoming birthday present or anything like that.”
But Bridenstine knows that before NASA builds the rockets, spacecraft and lunar landers needed for the mission, the agency must clear the political roadblocks that are every bit as daunting as the vacuum of space. While members of Congress love to say they support NASA — as they do lowering crime or boosting national security — getting them to increase the agency’s budget is another story. Traditionally, space does not equal votes in elections. And getting Democrats to support a project that, if successful, could be a legacy for the Trump administration is going to be a tough sell.
Some key lawmakers are already on record as skeptical of, if not hostile to, the proposal.
“The President has decided to play politics with the Artemis program by seeking to speed up plans to send humans back to the moon in 2024 instead of 2028 without a strong justification for doing so,” Rep. José E. Serrano (D-N.Y.), the chair of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said in a statement.
At a recent congressional hearing about deep space exploration, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), the chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, blasted the way the administration has rolled out the program.
“Rhetoric about American leadership in space and advancing the role of women in spaceflight is all well and good,” she said. “But it is not a substitute for a well-planned, well-managed, well-funded and well-executed exploration program. To date, Congress has not been given a credible basis for believing the president’s moon program satisfied any of those criteria.”
But like any good salesman, Bridenstine has pressed ahead, outwardly optimistic and undeterred, one congressional district at a time.
In August, he kept up a punishing travel schedule. On the 16th, he visited the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama with a trio of Republicans: Rep. Robert B. Aderholt (Ala.), Rep. Mo Brooks (Ala.) and Rep. Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.). On the 22nd, he was in Ohio with Rep. Marcy Kaptur, a Democrat, and Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican. On the 26th, he was at the NASA Ames Research Center in California with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Anna G. Eshoo, both Democrats. Two days later, it was the University of New Hampshire with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D); then the University of Iowa with Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R) and Rep. David Loebsack (D).
The goal, Bridenstine said in an interview, is to “educate and, in some cases, even inspire the right actions that will enable us to get where we all desire to go.”
But it’s also to showcase how institutions in certain congressional districts are contributing to the program, which is something members of Congress can take credit for on the campaign trail. It’s the moon as political currency, which Bridenstine, who served a little over two terms in Congress, knows as well as anyone.
During his confirmation process, Bridenstine was criticized for being a politician instead of a scientist or engineer, as many NASA administrators had been.
“Maybe it’s a university in their district,” he said. “Maybe it’s their industry that helps NASA. I think it really changes the dynamic to where they can see the direct impact to programs like this and how it affects their constituents and how it benefits the country as a whole.”
Along the way, Bridenstine has helped forge some unlikely alliances.
At the Ames Research Center, he appeared to win Pelosi's endorsement. During a speech, she turned to Bridenstine and said, “As far as having a woman step foot on the moon, our hopes are riding on you.”
That triggered a rare tweet of support for Pelosi from Vice President Pence, the chair of the National Space Council: “Great to see @SpeakerPelosi join us in supporting Artemis, which will land the first American woman on the Moon by 2024! Thank you @NASA for all of your hard work!”
But Pelosi is not satisfied with the way the Trump administration has pursued the goal. “Of course, the Speaker supports women having an equal opportunity to go to the moon and pioneer new frontiers,” Drew Hammill, Pelosi’s deputy chief of staff, said in an email. "But NASA has failed to provide Congress with what we need to evaluate the Administration’s proposal. Congress needs answers.”
In a statement, Eshoo said that while she wanted more detail about the ultimate cost and timeline, she, too, was generally supportive.
“Artemis has the potential to captivate the country by landing the first woman on the Moon and develop the technology necessary to live and work on another world, and I’m especially proud that the NASA Ames Center in my District will be integral to the mission’s success,” she said. “I’ve spoken with Administrator Bridenstine about Artemis on several occasions, and I’m optimistic we can land a woman on the Moon in a handful of years.”
He also has a key ally in Rep. Kay Granger (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. She recently met with Bridenstine to discuss the program and said in an interview that the “chances are good” for getting the funding it needs. She’s joining the administrator in selling the program to members of Congress, she said, because “many of them are just not aware of it.”
Still, it’s clear NASA and the White House have a lot of work to do — especially with giving Congress a detailed budget of what the entire program is going to cost.
“The truth is, without a lot more detailed information, it would be difficult to support in absolute terms the administration’s plans for Artemis,” said Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-Pa.), the vice chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.
Even supporters such as Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), a key member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said NASA has a ways to go to build up support.
“I’ve yet to see the numbers for a five-year plan,” he said in an interview. “I want to be able to strongly make the case for acceleration for Artemis, for moving forward with landing a woman on the moon. But for me to convince my colleagues, I need information I don’t yet have.”