The news comes as a surprise to the space community, as many stakeholders who had been pressing for the Biden camp to keep Bridenstine in his role.
But his comments to Aviation Week confirmed his desire to exit the role even if he is asked to stay. Bridenstine positioned his decision as one that would serve NASA’s best interests.
“What you need is somebody who has a close relationship with the president of the United States. You need somebody who is trusted by the administration…. including the OMB [Office of Management and Budget], the National Space Council and the National Security Council, and I think that I would not be the right person for that in a new administration,” Bridenstine told Aviation Week.
Bridenstine could not be immediately reached for further comment.
Though the vast majority of NASA employees have long-term careers at the space agency, it is common for incoming presidents to install new leadership at NASA’s headquarters in Washington DC.
President Donald Trump’s decision to appoint Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman from Oklahoma, was initially met with broad pushback on Capitol Hill. The space agency is typically helmed by a scientist, a former astronaut or an otherwise publicly apolitical figure, and many lawmakers feared that Bridenstine’s appointment could irrevocably politicize NASA and its efforts to return humans to the Moon and conduct climate research. Bridenstine had also made prior comments expressing doubt about the role human activity has played in the climate crisis.
But during his confirmation hearings in the Senate and during subsequent town halls at NASA, Bridenstine made it clear he’d changed his mind and fully accepted broad scientific consensus, and he voiced support for NASA’s climate research efforts. He also won bipartisan support and plenty of cheerleaders in the private sector for his handling of NASA’s Commerical Crew Program, an Obama-era effort to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States after the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program. The Commercial Crew Program reached its climax earlier this year when SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft carried two NASA astronauts to the International Space Station and back.
Bridenstine also helped guide NASA’s plans to return humans to the moon, which Vice President Mike Pence last year said should be drastically accelerated. Bridenstine dubbed it the Artemis program, named for Apollo’s twin sister in Greek mythology, and vowed the next moon landing would bring the first-ever woman to the lunar surface.
This weekend, four more astronauts are expected to make the trek to the ISS onboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule. One of the crew members, NASA’s Shannon Walker, was asked about Bridenstine’s decision to step down from the space agency when Biden takes office.
“I know it’s customary for people in the administration to submit their resignation, and then we have to take it from there,” Walker told reporters during a Monday press briefing about her upcoming mission. “Honestly, I have no idea what will come after that. I’m assuming we will continue on with our Artemis mission and just keep doing what we have been doing at NASA because that’s what we do.”