For very different reasons, two major space agencies confirmed in January that they were losing their leaders with another declaring that its departing leader was about to leave early. First up was the departure of Jim Bridenstine, current Administrator of NASA. Despite popular demand that he should stay, Bridenstine has decided to leave with the ending of the Trump Administration, which initially appointed him.
Despite initial opposition to his appointment, once there Bridenstine shone in the role in which he had to diplomatically tread the path between the Trump Administration and his own NASA employees, especially on contentious issues like climate change. Bridenstine also brought stability to the agency, which had previously been beset by financial incompetence and ever-changing plans on human exploration.
The Artemis programme continues to suffer from design mistakes of the past (e.g. choosing the inline SLS design and the “too weak” service module for Orion etc), as well as the funding and technical challenges of today (e.g. not enough funding from Congress for a new lunar lander and the difficulty of developing new cryogenic propellant storage and transfer technologies). However, at least it had the solid objective of trying to get US astronauts onto the Moon by 2024, a target it previously lacked. While this date is now unlikely to be achieved, NASA is on its way and Bridenstine, a former Republican congressman and US Navy pilot, gets a lot of credit for this.
Likewise, his ability to treat the media fairly, without trying to paper over NASA’s failings, won him admirers within the space press corps. He also gained fans for his refreshing attitude towards equal opportunities. He made a point of pressing for Artemis to have a major objective of getting women astronauts onto the lunar surface.
Jim Bridenstine’s valedictory statement on Twitter went as follows: “It has been my great honor (sic) to serve as your NASA Administrator. I will miss the amazing NASA family and will forever be grateful for my time at this incredible agency. Ad astra.”
Bridenstine has now joined the aerospace and defence private equity firm, Acorn Growth Companies, which is based in his home town, Oklahoma City.
…as the UK Space Agency also loses its chief
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) also announced that it was losing its leader, CEO Dr Graham Turnock. Turnock had been in post since March 2017, having previously served in a different role within the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). He originally trained as a particle physicist but also studied business at the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA).
The exact reasons for his departure have not been revealed. The decision may be related to the UK government initially failing to consult with the UKSA – and later ignoring its advice – over the decision to purchase a 45 per cent share in the OneWeb communications constellation – a move said to have been driven by former Prime Ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings. While this gamble may yet pay off, especially if it is able to carry payloads for workable navigation system, the move was not popular with parts of the UK Space industry. In effect, it put paid to the UKSA’s plans for the UK to develop a national Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) navigation satellite constellation of its own, needed because Brexit forced the UK out of the EU/ESA Galileo programme.
Turnock refused to be drawn on the reasons for his departure. His achievements include a commitment by the UK government to return to the launching of space satellites from the British Isles, and his support of new technologies including the Reaction Engines SABRE air-breathing rocket engine design.
“I’m particularly pleased that we’ve put the economic and regenerative potential of the space industry at the forefront of government thinking, with major plans to support new jobs and facilities across the UK,” said Turnock. “We have enabled huge advances in our manufacturing and launch potential, with the UK on track to launch satellites from the British Isles for the first time.”
Update on 31 January 2021: Since the announcement of Turnock’s departure, it has been revealed that UK space policy and strategy will now be decided by the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under its Secretary of State, Kwarsi Kwarteng, rather than the UK Space Agency itself. In effect, this further demotes the agency’s role which has also ceded responsibility for the regulation of space launches to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
…and ESA has its change of leadership accelerated
The final news regarding departing space agency heads is that the generally well-regarded ESA Director General, Jan Woerner, has decided to bring forward his departure date from July to the end of February. This has been done in order to help the new Director General, Josef Aschbacher, settle in before negotiations with the European Union on the Financial Framework Partnership Agreement (FFPA).
Comment by David Todd: We wish Jim Bridenstine, Graham Turnock and Jan Woerner well. Godspeed to all of them.
The writer of this piece is a very small shareholder in Reaction Engines Limited