With every President comes a new NASA administrator, and the current admin, Jim Bridenstine, has raised a number of eyebrows. The strongest reaction to Bridenstine’s appointment comes from his lack of a science background, though more recent reports say he has changed his mind on climate change and does believe humans are responsible and can curb the effects we’re having on the planet. Nevertheless, the immediate knee-jerk reaction I saw from the space community raised the question is of whether a scientist is really the right person to run NASA.
To answer this question, we have to start by taking a quick look at past administrators and their backgrounds. Head’s up — this is going to be a very cursory look but each Administrator’s name is linked to their bio if you want to read a little more. And if you’d rather listen to this discussion while you go about your day, here’s the video:
First, we start with T. Keith Glennan, Administrator from August 19, 1958, to January 20, 1961, under President Eisenhower.
During his term as Administrator, Glennan was president-on-leave of the Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland, a position he’d held since 1947 and returned to after leaving the agency. As NASA’s first administrator, he took a job that no one knew what to do with but he did bring a science background to the job. Glennan had a degree in electrical engineering, had worked on the technical side of the then-nascent sound motion picture industry, and during WWII served as the first Administrator and then as Director of the U.S. Navy’s Underwater Sound Laboratories.
As Administrator, he facilitated the NACA’s transition into NASA as well as its absorption of the various space and space-adjacent programs that existed in the country at the time under the military, the DOD, and ARPA. Notably, this included the Army Ballistic Missile Association where Wernher von Braun’s team was working as well as JPL.
When JFK moved into the White House, he appointed Jim Webb who served as Administrator from February 14, 1961 to October 7, 1968.
Webb earned a BA in education before serving with the Marine Corps as a pilot in the 1930s. He left the service to study law at George Washington University and was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia in 1936. From there he began a career as a public servant, serving as secretary to Congressman Edward W. Pou then as an assistant in the office of O. Max Gardner. In 1936 he moved to the Sperry Gyroscope Company before re-entering the U.S. Marine Corps in 1944 for World War II. Post-war he served as director of the Bureau of the Budget, then Undersecretary of the Treasury, then went to Oklahoma to work for the Kerr-McGee Oil Corporation.
Under his direction, NASA set up the pieces of Apollo, successfully guiding the agency through Kennedy’s assassination and the Apollo 1, keeping NASA on track to land on the Moon by the end of the decade.
Webb’s successor was Dr. Thomas O. Paine who was confirmed by the Senate on March 20, 1969.
Prior to NASA, Paine was a research associate at Stanford University in the late 1940s working with high-temperature alloys and liquid metals for naval nuclear reactors. Then he moved to the General Electric Research Laboratory where he again worked with composite metals before transferring to the Meter and Instrument Department. He ultimately became a research associate and manager of Engineering Applications at GE’s Research and Development Center.
Under Paine, NASA flew the first seven Apollo missions, and though he pushed the agency over the edge to make sure Apollo met its end of decade deadline he misread the Nixon Administration’s plans for space policy and ultimately resigned from NASA September 15, 1970.
Paine was succeeded by Dr. James Chipman Fletcher who served from April 27, 1971, to May 1, 1977, under Nixon, retired, then came back to serve again from May 12, 1986, to April 8, 1989, under Reagan.
Fletcher held undergraduate and doctorate degrees in physics from Columbia University and the California Institute of Technology respectively. He worked as a researcher at Harvard and Princeton before joining Hughes Aircraft in 1948, then moving on to the Guided Missile Division of the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation. In 1958, Fletcher co-founded the Space Electronics Corporation before being named systems vice president of the Aerojet General Corporation. In 1964 he became president of the University of Utah, a position he held until his first appointment to NASA. When he left in 1977, he worked as an independent consultant — notably served on advisory board involved in developing the Strategic Defense Initiative — and took a faculty position at the University of Pittsburgh until he returned to the office of the Administrator.
Fletcher presided over programs that had begun before he took office, notably the shuttle program, the Skylab missions, and the Mars Viking landers. But he also approved the Voyager missions, plans for the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. During his second run as Administrator, Fletcher led NASA’s recovery efforts after the Challenger disaster, a large part of which had him overseeing NASA’s reinvestment in the program’s safety, reliability, and efficiency, as well as its organizational restructuring to prevent another fatality, including adding an egress method for astronauts. He also made NASA more reliant on expendable launch vehicle since the agency saw a decrease in satellite capability in the wake of the shuttle disaster.
Fletcher’s first successor was Dr. Robert A. Frosch who served under Jimmy Carter from June 21, 1977, to January 20, 1981.
Academically, Frosch held undergraduate and graduate degrees in theoretical physics both from Columbia University. He worked as a research scientist on underwater sound, sonar, oceanography, marine geology, and marine geophysics at the Hudson Laboratories of Columbia University, eventually becoming director. Then he worked for ARPA, first as Director for Nuclear Test Detection then deputy director of the agency. Next, he was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research and Development before being appointed as the Assistant Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Program. In every instance, these jobs had him managing large staffs and even larger budgets. While at NASA, Frosch oversaw the continued development of the Space Shuttle, notably Enterprise’s approach and landing test at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Centre.
After Fletcher came James Montgomery Beggs who served under Reagan from July 10, 1981, to December 4, 1985.
Beggs was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, serving with the Navy until 1954 then leaving in 1955 to pursue a master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. Beggs then served as Executive Vice President and then director of General Dynamics, NASA’s Associate Administrator in the Office of Advanced Research and Technology, Under Secretary of Transportation, and worked with the Westinghouse Electric Corporation.
Beggs took an indefinite leave of absence from NASA pending disposition of an indictment from the Justice Department for activities that predated his time with the space agency — that’s all his official bio says so it’s not something anyone wants to talk about but the issue was related to contract fraud. The indictment was later dismissed and the U.S. Attorney General apologized to for any embarrassment it might have caused.
Following Beggs came Fletcher’s second term. Then came Vice Admiral Richard H. Truly, someone who is perhaps better known as astronaut Dick Truly. He served as administrator from July 1, 19,89 to March 31, 1992.
Truly began his career as a naval aviator then became an instructor at the U.S. Air Force Aerospace Research Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. In 1965, he was selected as one of the astronauts to fly in the Air Force’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program; that group was transferred to NASA in 1969 after MOL was cancelled. As an astronaut, he flew some of the approach and landing tests before flying in space on STS-2 and again as commander of STS-8. He became NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Flight on February 20, 1986, helping NASA rebuild after the Challenger disaster. As Administrator, he really worked to help the shuttle program’s continued recovery, and when Hubble launched with a bad mirror he helped push forward the repair mission. But he ultimately fell out of step with the Bush administration.
Dan Goldin took over from Truly, holding the position of Administrator from April 1, 1992, to November 17, 2001.
Goldin had previously worked on electric propulsion systems for human interplanetary travel at NASA’s Langley Research Laboratory before beginning a 25-year career with the TRW Space and Technology Group, eventually serving as Vice President and General Manager. As Administrator, Dan Goldin developed the “faster, better, cheaper” approach to spaceflight that allowed the agency to deliver high value programs like the Mars Pathfinder mission in an era where NASA was under criticism for overly expensive programs and an imbalance between human and robotic missions. Goldin brought aggressive management reforms to NASA, reducing the overall budget and striking a balance between human and robotic exploration. He initiated the Origins Program to understand how the Universe has evolved and led a rescue plan for the successful installation of a “contact lens” on the Hubble Telescope. He also laid the foundation for a vigorous exploration of Mars.
He was widely lauded for bringing about a revitalization of the space agency.
Goldin’s successor was Sean O’Keefe who served from December 21, 2001, to February 11, 2005, under George W. Bush. O’Keefe’s held a master’s degree in Public Administration and worked in Business and Government Policy in academic and advisory roles before serving as Comptroller and Chief Financial Officer of the Department of Defense then being appointed as Secretary of the Navy.
Up next was Mike Griffin who was in the office from April 14, 2005, to January 20, 2009.
Highlights from his pre-Administrator days include serving as Space Department Head at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory as well as President and Chief Operating Officer of In-Q-Tel, Inc. before working with NASA as associate administrator for exploration. He also served as deputy for technology at the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. Griffin is also a professional engineer with more than two dozen technical papers under his belt.
Finally, we have Maj. Gen. Charles Frank Bolden who served from July 17, 2009, to January 20, 2017.
Bolden is another retired astronaut. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical science and a master’s degree in systems management. He served with the Marine Corps before becoming a naval aviator. Working at the Naval Air Test Center’s Systems Engineering and Strike Aircraft Test Directorates, he tested ground attack aircraft until 1980 when he joined NASA’s astronaut corps. As an astronaut, he worked on a number of assignments — he worked as Astronaut Office Safety Officer; Technical Assistant to the Director of Flight Crew Operations; Special Assistant to the Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston; and Chief of the Safety Division at Johnson to name a few. He flew in space as a pilot on STS-61C and STS-31, and served as commander on STS-45 and again on STS-60.
Under his direction, Bolden guided NASA through the transition from the shuttle program to the current era focussing on using the ISS to look ahead at human planetary missions and an increased reliance on commercial partners. He also established the Space Technology Mission Directorate to develop cutting-edge technologies for those future missions.
Which brings us to Jim Bridenstein. It also back to the original question: What are the ideal qualities for a NASA administrator?
This isn’t an easy question to ask because what is the measure of “good?” Is it advancing the cause of the agency, approving a new mission, creating more jobs, weathering storms? Comparing administrators is comparing apples and oranges in a lot of ways. But we need some measure for the sake of discussion, so let’s take NASA’s most recognizable achievement — the Moon landing. Because it was really Apollo that turned NASA into the agency with the incredible legacy it has. Also, this is Vintage Space so it’s fitting.
Though Apollo 11 landed under Tom Paine, it was Webb who made it all happen, so let’s look a little more closely and what Webb did.
The NASA Webb took over was not the NASA we know today. It wasn’t a sprawling, multi-pronged organization working towards overarching goals, it was a series of disparate labs and research centers thrust together to get Americans in space with no real sense of the future. But by the time he left the agency, NASA was a well oiled machine that had weathered the storm of Apollo 1 and was well on its way towards successful lunar missions.
Webb accomplished this by doing what he did best, manoeuvering through Washington on NASA’s behalf, flexing his political prowess to sell congress on the insane budget needed to get Apollo to the Moon.
Establishing the Johnsons Space Centre in Houston is a good example. NASA was considering a few places for an expanded manned spaceflight centre, and Webb was already leaning towards Houston when he saw a way to get a little more out of the deal. He knew the Texas Senator whose district the land was in had the power to help pass three bills President Kennedy was keen to push through the Senate. So he told Kennedy to tell the Senator that any help with the bills might help his district get the new NASA centre. Kennedy got support on his bills and the senator got the NASA centre he was going to get anyways. When executives at NASA protested the move from their original site at the Langley Research Laboratory, Webb pointed out that the Virginia Senator was doing nothing to help the agency, and that it was prudent to go to where the most support was coming from. He knew how to appease everyone.
What Webb did was parse the burden of the Moon landing across the country so multiple states, and by extension, their representatives in Washington, would be accountable and have skin in the game. So at the time, yes, it absolutely made sense that NASA needed a leader who could manipulate politicians. I would hazard that having a space fan at the helm in the 1960s probably wouldn’t have made for such a successful execution of the Apollo program. Webb’s politicking was a brilliant way to get support for an agency that was doing something right out of science fiction.
But what made Webb so successful might also have left NASA with a legacy it can’t maintain, because NASA now is not what NASA was then. The agency is operating with a fraction of the budget meaning the states that have an interest in the space game care less. It’s organizationally quite messy, so the right person to run NASA really needs to be able to manage a large scale business, and when that business goes hand in hand with politics, political savvy is most important. A good administrator can hire the right engineers, scientists, and anyone else to get the technical side of things done, but an administrator can’t hire billions of dollars.
So what makes an ideal administrator? Someone who believes in science, absolutely, but ultimately — and this is my own opinion — I would say it needs to be someone with unparalleled political savvy.
For more on the administrators, all their names are linked to bios, which are also my sources.