Yes, the news is bad and it’s getting worse. Trump has nominated a far right bobble-head named Sen. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to lead the world’s premier space agency. But you guys can survive this. You’re NASA, dammit, and you represent the best and brightest among us. If you can’t survive the barbarians ransacking one of the bright lights of the Age of Enlightenment, there’s little hope left.
Let me offer a bit of assistance. I speak Bridenstine, being a native of his congressional district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and I can translate his real goals and interests for you. Before I went to law school, I was an engineer at NASA/JPL for 10 years.
First, while Bridenstine is in no way qualified to serve as NASA’s director, you must understand that he is sincerely interested in aviation and space.
Second, unlike Trump’s other Oklahoma appointment Scott Pruitt at the EPA, Bridenstine has made no indications that he wants to tear down NASA. Conservatives generally like the space agency, as it historically makes the kinds of headlines that make their constituents feel good – unlike the EPA.
Third, you need to recognize that Bridenstine’s constituents in Tulsa see themselves as having once been vital to the nation’s aviation and space industries. In a sense, this is true. Wiley Post, the inventor of the pressurized suit and discoverer of the jet stream was an Oklahoman. Oklahoma also believes that more of its natives have served as astronauts than any other state like retired astronaut Shannon Lucid. More on Tulsa’s aviation and space industries below.
So, head’s up – Bridenstine is sincere, and he’s probably not an idiot.
In fact, if you treat Bridenstine in the right way, you may manage to change his attitudes on a lot of topics, and this might possibly have ripple effects that could begin to end this weird era of shamans and return us to fact-based reasoning.
Just a thought.
But it won’t happen if you treat him with hostility and talk down to him too much.
Try to excite him about your jobs and your missions. Make the science exciting, and make it vital, and I suspect you’ll have a convert.
I’ll return to Bridenstine and his milieu in a moment.
You need to understand the importance of appearance to the Trumpites. NASA is certainly filled with appearance-oriented managers, but you need to recalibrate a bit. Here appearance is first how things will look on cable news (e.g., Fox and CNN), second how a small group of proud but woefully uneducated people will interpret what they see on cable news, and third how their local influencers will use topical news items to manipulate them.
Second, you have to understand that the whole Trump world, supporters, managers – the whole works – is about fantasy – mostly nostalgia about a vanished world that in many respects never existed outside of movies. To survive you need to fit into this fantasy world. Feed the fantasy, and you’ll get to keep doing real science.
In the first draft of this commentary, I set about lampooning the Trumpites, but that’s pretty much what everyone does – and it feeds their deep desire to be victims. To scream because there’s nothing left but a scream. The featured image for this piece is a Sontaran commander from Dr. Who. All joking aside, if you play up scary aliens, you might not only get to keep your jobs but NASA might start a hiring wave.
Let me offer a picture of Trump supporters and especially the Trump supporters in Bridenstine’s congressional district. I don’t agree with their politics and much of their worldview, but I do understand them, I think.
You might think that Trumpites are people who believe that the Earth is 4,000 years old and that dinosaurs and man existed at the same time. Well, they’ll say that to piss off smarty pants guys like you, but do they really believe it?
Even the most fundamentalist of them (so long as they’re not genuinely crazy) really “know” that many of the things they “believe” as “true” barely rise to the level of wishful thinking – but they genuinely mourn that the things they want to believe aren’t true, and they mourn even more that so many of these never were’s were once so firmly believed. They were raised to believe things that they now know to be untrue. It hurts. But they’ll never tell you just how much it hurts. They’re proud, and they don’t want your pity.
And more than anything – they’d like to be heroes.
I’d add – “again” – after the heroes part, but they know that many – not all and certainly not even most – but many of their heroes were not heroes at all and might have even been villains. They know this – but they don’t want to be reminded of it, because for many of them, it’s just about all they have left of their former pride. Fake news.
It’s like everyone helping grandma pretend that grandpa is still alive when every night grandma reads his funeral program.
Bridenstine and his constituents fit very snuggly into this fantasy world.
Fantasy and memories, for many of Bridenstine’s supporters are all they have left of a wrecked world that didn’t turn out as promised.
Tulsa, which Bridenstine represents in Congress, used to be much wealthier than it is now. It was once known as the “Oil Capital of the World,” and Reader’s Digest once called it “America’s most beautiful city.” In the 1930s, while the rest of the world was plunged in economic depression, Tulsa boomed in oil production, refining, manufacturing, and aviation. Oil barons like Frank Phillips were household names across the country.
Will Rogers who was both Hollywood’s top box office star and the country’s most widely read syndicated columnist was a native of nearby Claremore, and he was frequently seen in downtown Tulsa whose skyline gleamed with a spectacular array of Art Deco buildings.
Rogers was friends with aviation pioneer Wiley Post. Rogers died in a plane crash with Post on a trip to Alaska in 1935. Each state is allowed to have the statues of two native sons in Congress. Oklahoma, despite its extreme conservatism, chose two Cherokees – Rogers and Sequoyah – to represent it.
More about Tulsa’s aviation and space history in a moment.
For about two decades Tulsa was a city that mattered.
Then things changed. Not overnight. But slowly. The city gradually slid into oblivion and poverty. Nowadays 73% of Tulsa public school children rely on free or reduced price meals, and Oklahoma incarcerates more women per capita than any place on earth. Housing prices barely keep pace with inflation. Those are facts the locals would prefer to close their eyes about. So, let’s call it fake news.
In their heart of hearts, Bridenstine’s constituents know that they have been abysmally led for the past 50 years, and they know they have been taken advantage of, although they’ll disagree about who exactly has tricked them. They know but won’t generally admit it that many of their bedrock philosophies fall very short in the modern world.
They know that while they might have worked hard enough, they haven’t worked smart enough in an era that is all about working smart.
And all of this cuts their pride deeply.
They’ve been told their whole lives that things were continually getting better but this isn’t what their eyes have seen. Many of the local highways are dark at night because poor thieves stole the copper wire inside them, and the city for all sorts of reasons can’t or won’t replace it.
They might not have been titans. But they did once matter. At least a little bit.
This really is true, and they’d like you to know it.
They’d be really pleased if you could acknowledge this without being patronizing in a Clintonesque way. It might not be their fault that titanic economic forces have largely acted against them for years but they are certainly its victims. But that’s fake news.
There was a time when Oklahoma wasn’t the epitome of flyover country. In fact, it was vital land-in country.
The first Tulsa Municipal Airport was an art deco palace built with the city’s oil money. Back in those days, commercial aircraft couldn’t cross the country without landing someplace for fuel, and Tulsa was frequently the destination of choice.
Everyone who was anyone in aviation landed at Tulsa Municipal Airport from Amelia Earhart to Charles Lindbergh. The airship USS Los Angeles passed through Tulsa in 1928 during a rare cross-country journey.
For several months in the 1930s, the Tulsa Municipal Airport enjoyed more landings than Croydon Field (London), Tempelhof (Berlin), and LeBourget (Paris) for the same months.
During World War II, Tulsa’s Douglas Aircraft factory built 615 A-24 “Banshee” dive-bombers, 962 B-24 “Liberator” bombers, and 1,343 A-26 “Invader” attack bombers. My mother’s older brother and his wife worked at the Douglas plant. The Douglas plant eventually became McDonnell Douglas and continued operating after the war. Tulsa’s Douglas was eventually joined by North American Aviation, which eventually became Rockwell International.
The Rockwell plant designed and built various components for the Apollo space program, both for the lunar lander and the Saturn V rocket.
My father’s brother and many of my parents’ friends were engineers working in Tulsa’s aerospace industry. They thought of themselves as soldiers in the great space race. My uncle took his security briefings very seriously. He and his colleagues listened to recordings of Cosmonauts dying in space, which made them take their work even more seriously since lives depended on it. Most of them had models of Saturn V rockets somewhere in their homes. They felt vital. Their work, they believed, would help persuade the Soviets not to start a war.
Then rounds of layoffs hit in the 1970s, as the Apollo project came to an end.
The local aerospace industry staggered. It would recover a bit, then get punched again, getting smaller bit by bit every decade. The Rockwell plant designed and built parts for the space shuttle and the B-1 bomber.
Tulsa still has an aerospace industry, but like the rest of the city, it’s a shadow of its former glory.
American Airlines maintains a large maintenance base in Tulsa that handles aircraft overhaul and component and avionics repair, housed in the world’s largest commercial aircraft maintenance facility – 3.3 million square feet – established in Tulsa in 1946.
The city’s current airport terminal opened in 1963. Now renamed “Tulsa International Airport,” the new airport anticipated building on the vitality of its predecessor.
Just the opposite happened. The city is served by far fewer airlines now than it was in the 1960s and the ‘international” part of its name has caused snickers for at least 30 years. Yes, there was a time when you could fly abroad on a commercial flight that left Tulsa.
The city’s aviation industry broadly matches the story of the city itself.
Here’s where Bridenstine fits in to the picture.
In 1998, Tulsa native and aerospace engineer named Lee Rainey decided that the city should have air and space museum. Rainey got the Tulsa Air and Space Museum (known as TASM) museum off the ground and served as its first director. Other directors came and went.
From 2008 to 2010, Bridenstine served as TASM’s executive director before abruptly resigning to join the Navy Reserves as a pilot. During his tenure at TASM, Bridenstine led a program to have Tulsa International’s longest runway designated as an emergency landing strip for the NASA space shuttle program. At 9,999 feet, Tulsa’s 18L/36R runway can land almost any aircraft, including the Antonov AN-124, one of the world’s largest cargo planes, which is a frequent visitor to the Tulsa airport.
In 2012, Bridenstine won his first term in Congress, and he’s still in office.
How conservative is Bridenstine? Well, he lives in a district where the election is essentially over once the Republicans pick their man. Folks around here debate whether Democrats are devil worshippers or baby eaters. They used to say the Democrats were communists until they decided that such a comparison might not be fair to Putin, who has curiously emerged as their favorite politician after Trump.
Bridenstine’s predecessor was John Sullivan, also a Republican. The American Conservative Union consistently rated Sullivan at 100%, winning that group’s “Defender of Liberty” award, and Sullivan was rated 100% by the Christian Coalition for his religio-political views.
But despite all this, Sullivan wasn’t conservative enough for the good folks of Oklahoma’s First Congressional District. So, they dumped Sullivan and went with Bridenstine whose conservatism could hit 11 on a dial only marked up to 10.
If you’ve read this far, you now have a sense about the environment that produced Bridenstine. I could add a bit more about the unique local religious milieu, but I won’t except to point out that Bridenstine is a Baptist. This means that the NASA biologists should be careful about using words like “evolution.”
Here are a few more tips for my former colleagues.
First off, NASA’s California centers – the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center – are going to struggle for relevance in the Bridenstine era.
JPL’s main problem is that it builds robotic spacecraft, and Bridenstine has shown much more of an interest in “boots on the ground” space exploration – you know, sending guys out into space to take pictures of themselves next to American flags.
The Trump constituency will almost certainly rather see American astronauts in space waving flags and being heroic even if the robotic spacecraft program costs a small fraction of the manned space program and generally achieves more spectacular results.
So, JPL , you guys need to get a meeting with Bridenstine where you do two things – 1) remind him of your track record – the Voyagers, Viking, Pioneer, etc. Your Voyager spacecraft are the modern equivalent of Magellan – not only were they the first spacecraft to visit many of the planets, they have become the first spacecraft to pass outside our solar system, and 2) you need to come up with the ways that your work can closely complement anything that’s planned for the manned space program.
Ames has a similar problem to JPL – relevance – so hold on tight to the Orion project.
Oh, and both labs need to lose their attitude a bit. Keep the smugness to yourself, and JPL you really need to get Caltech’s new president Tom Rosenbaum to tone down the anti-Trump rhetoric. Come on guys, you remember what happened to Bruce Murray in the Reagan years, right? Be cool.
Like I said, I’ve deleted much of the Bridenstine lampooning from the first draft of this article.
But here are a few small bits to help you understand the importance of appearances in the new order. What in Jim Bridenstine’s background makes him a familiar character to the good folks of Trumplandia?
Nope. Wrong. Guess again. Okay, give up?
Let me tell you about a movie that many maybe most of you have never seen. It’s the movie that made Will Smith a household name, but this isn’t about the Fresh Prince. The character from Independence Day that’s most relevant here is Pres. Thomas J. Whitmore – he’s a fighter pilot and a politician.
Guess what Bridenstine is? He’s a fighter pilot and a politician. In the cynical-yet-smaltzy Trump worldview, that’s the perfect man to head NASA – you know, space … where the aliens are … now that’s something that your average Trump supporter can get his head around. It just makes sense to have a guy who can lead the charge against invading aliens heading up the space agency.
And that gives you a good idea about what “appearances” will be like in this new age.
Bridenstine has no background in science or space – but he is a fighter pilot – so, he’ll come in handy during the alien invasion. (You know, like “Independence Day.”) One of Bridenstine’s kids was in the same scout troop as another youngster I know, and the congressman apparently spent many hours building junior’s soap box derby car, so he’s apparently an advocate of work-life balance (of a sort) or maybe he’s just into winning.
I would think twice about applying to be the data analyst for a prospective mission to land a rover on any moon of Jupiter to study some vague dust compound, unless there’s some indication of predatory alien life. If you’re writing any funding proposals, it might be a good idea to stress the security related aspects, e.g., the possibility of alien invasion or the prospect of North Korea conducting space exploration. (You can never be too careful, you know.) Your proposals should have war-like names even if they’re about something benign, e.g., “Project Shotgun” would be a good name to study ferrous oxide compounds on Neptune’s moon Triton along with checking out alien life.
Your predecessors at NASA figured out how to keep the air fresh flowing into the wounded Apollo 13 using the paper from an instruction manual and duct tape. If you can solve problems like that, figuring out how to collaborate with your new sincere but unqualified boss from Oklahoma shouldn’t be an impossible task.
For aNewDomain, I’m Tom Ewing.
Sontaran battle commander. Fair use, Wikipedia.
Shannon Lucid, courtesy of NASA
Donald Trump by By Ali Shaker/VOA – http://m.voanews.com/a/republican-national-convention-day-three-/3427729.html, Public Domain, Link
Traveling evangelist by Tichnor Brothers, Publisher – Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #85625, Public Domain, Link
Oil Capital postcard, courtesy of American Oil and Gas Society.
Will Rogers by Melbourne Spurr – Internet Archive, Public Domain, Link
Tulsa Municipal Airport, 1930s.
B-24 “Liberator” bomber by Nehrams2020, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Saturn V rocket, Public Domain, Link
Antonov AN-124 by Antti Havukainen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Voyager spacecraft NASA – NASA website, Public Domain, Link
By NASA – <a class=”external text” href=”http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/IMAGES/LARGE/GPN-2000-001313.jpg” rel=”nofollow”>Great Images in NASA</a> <a class=”external text” href=”http://grin.hq.nasa.gov/ABSTRACTS/GPN-2000-001313.html” rel=”nofollow”>Description</a>, Public Domain, <a href=”https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6450090″>Link</a>
By Leonhard Seppala – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress‘s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b05600.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information., Public Domain, Link
Beryl Ford Collection/Tulsa City-County Library https://stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma/2012/05/04/visualized-american-airlines-impact-on-northeastern-oklahoma/