This story is part of a multipart series about under-the-radar campaign issues.
Jim Bridenstine’s journey to space began in the dusty plains of Oklahoma. Picking his way through the wreckage left by a horrific tornado that had killed dozens days before, Bridenstine was stunned. Elementary schools and neighborhoods had been “absolutely eliminated,” as the battle-tested Navy Reserve pilot described the scene later. Water spewed from shattered pipes and onto the street as he wondered what a newbie U.S. congressman like himself could possibly do in the face of such lethal force: “Who would have thought there was that much power in a tornado?”
The answer to that internal struggle is why Bridenstine sits here in his Washington, D.C., office three years later, his desk cluttered with science and technology magazines. The legislator recently proposed the American Space Renaissance Act, the most starry-eyed package since the days of John F. Kennedy. “He’s very smart on these issues,” says the Planetary Institute’s director of space policy, Casey Dreier, who calls Bridenstine a “force going forward.” Even in this petty election cycle, where politics is much more terrestrial, the Republican has gotten attention. “Jim Bridenstine is a rock star,” Ted Cruz posted on Facebook soon after ending his presidential bid. “You could not have a stronger, more principled, more effective conservative fighter in Congress.”
Space is a national security issue.
When Bridenstine took a seat on both the House Committee on Armed Service and the Committee on Science, Space and Technology shortly after assuming office for Oklahoma’s 1st District in 2013, he was hoping to use satellite tech to better predict the kind of storms that ravaged his state. But since taking the post, Bridenstine has expanded his horizons and crafted a far more ambitious plan for the next frontier. “Friends, this is our Sputnik moment,” the Donald Rumsfeld admirer said in a speech to the 32nd Space Symposium in April. “America must forever be the preeminent spacefaring nation.” But at a time when even infamously lofty-aired presidential candidates are cautioning that our focus must be more earthbound, can Bridenstine usher in his galactic revolution?
The first thing to know: Bridenstine doesn’t enjoy speaking in sound bites, although he’s had quippy moments, like the time he infuriated Democrats by saying Oklahoma would “accept the president’s apology” for spending “30 times” as much on global warming research as weather forecasting, a claim PolitiFact later rated as “Mostly False.” (Bridenstine’s office says the data PolitiFact included was not relevant to the topic he addressed.) No, the Cornell grad and Rice University triple-major student (econ-biz-psych) has a mathematical approach to discourse, where breaking off the equation early is to invite errors.
“Space is a national security issue,” Bridenstine says, and with rapid-fire certainty he lays out (in 20 virtually uninterrupted minutes) the stakes should America fail to keep its gaze on the heavens. The SparkNotes version: Consider that seemingly everything today uses a GPS signal, whether it’s your iPhone, your gas pump or even your ATM. Now imagine if Russia or China decided to blow that all out of the sky with antisatellite missiles, weaponry both countries are “developing,” Bridenstine says — and in 2007 China acknowledged that it shot down one of its own satellites but said it was not in a show of force.
Bridenstine’s solution? Diversify. The idea plays to both his fanboy conservatism and strategic military background, where he flew E-2C Hawkeyes in Central and South America while waging the War on Drugs. “We don’t want to be dependent on a few multi-billion dollar satellites,” Bridenstine says, insisting that public-private partnerships with commercial-data gatherers would make it harder to cripple American space systems in the event of an attack. Scientists could also use that data to nail down weather forecasts and climate trends, bringing home Bridenstine’s original intent to “move to a day where there are zero deaths from tornadoes.” And it all comes at a discount too, he says, noting that satellite businesses wouldn’t rely just on fed dollars; they would be in competition for contracts, bringing prices down and sharing the cost.
Even with the discount, it’s that cost that has some balking. Sure, it would be nice to pave space, but first we have to mend our roads, the thinking goes. “Right now, we have bigger problems,” Donald Trump told a 10-year-old boy who asked about NASA during a town hall last year. “We’ve got to fix our potholes. You know, we don’t exactly have a lot of money.” Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has said she “really really” supports the space program, but experts say it’s unlikely that she’ll add significantly to NASA spending, which has languished at about half a percent of the federal budget ever since her husband’s days.
More cynically, critics suggest Bridenstine’s focus on weather forecasting over climate research reflects less his concern for the public and more his publicly stated skepticism of global warming, in addition to his deep ties to the energy sector. The oil and gas industry was his biggest bankroller in 2014, donating $62,000 to his reelection campaign, according to OpenSecrets.org. Both his chief of staff and comms director, Joe and Sheryl Kaufman, were previously energy pros at ConocoPhillips and Phillips Petroleum, respectively. For her part, Kaufman says, “The energy industry is critical to the Oklahoma economy, and Congressman Bridenstine won’t apologize for supporting it.” And when asked by OZY if he’s influenced by those connections, Bridenstine says, “Absolutely not. There are people who donate to me because they believe in what I’m doing; the last thing I do is vote to appease anybody.”
In hyperpartisan Washington, even space can become a political land mine, which takes some creative maneuvering from Bridenstine. He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act knowing “full well that getting it passed wasn’t in the cards.” The goal? Find out which of his ambitious platforms — such as giving NASA directors longer terms or authorizing millions for new satellite launches — could have broad appeal before filtering them into other bills. While his strategy isn’t flashy (his name won’t headline the final doc), it’s previously been pretty effective. Ten of Bridenstine’s ASRA provisions were passed in May as part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Mission accomplished.