A Moon Rock in the Oval Office As Biden Appointees Arrive at NASA

A Moon Rock in the Oval Office As Biden Appointees Arrive at NASA

Just hours after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in as President and Vice President of the United States, NASA announced the arrival of three Biden appointees along with confirmation that Steve Jurczyk is now Acting Administrator.  He succeeds Jim Bridenstine, who posted a heartfelt farewell video.  But perhaps the biggest space news today is that Biden has a Moon rock in the Oval Office.

Today’s inauguration certainly was unlike any that came before.  Despite COVID-19 precautions, the 25,000 National Guard troops guarding the nation’s capital in the wake of the failed insurrection on January 6, and the absence of the outgoing President who chose not to participate in the peaceful transition of power that is a hallmark of American democracy, however, it was just as memorable or even more so.

As the Bidens settled into the White House, the Washington Post’s Annie Linskey got a look inside the Oval Office and reported on the changes from the prior Administration. One is that Biden has a Moon rock on a bookshelf near a painting of Benjamin Franklin that is “intended to represent Biden’s interest in following science.”  The Moon rock “is intended to remind Americans of the ambition and accompaniments [sic] of earlier generations.”

What that may presage with regard to the Biden Administration’s plans for NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon remains to be seen, but Biden did make three appointments to NASA as part of his first actions today and confirmed that Steve Jurczyk will be Acting Administrator.

Stephen Jurczyk, NASA Acting Administrator. Photo Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky}

Jurczyk is the highest ranking civil servant in the agency, Associate Administrator. That is the third highest position after the Administrator and Deputy Administrator. The latter two are political appointments that end with the president who appointed them so Bridenstine and Jim Morhard left at noon today as the Trump Administration ended.

A former Director of NASA’s Langley Research Center and former Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate, he was elevated to Associate Administrator in 2018.

He and Bhavya Lal issued a memo this afternoon announcing the arrival of Lal as Senior White House Appointee, Alicia Brown as Associate Administrator for Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, and Marc Etkind as Associate Administrator for Communications.

Message from NASA Acting Administrator Steve Jurczyk and Senior White House Appointee Bhavya Lal

As we begin this next chapter for NASA, we want to thank Jim Bridenstine and Jim Morhard for their service and leadership of the agency through the many great successes and formidable challenges of the last few years.

We also could not be prouder of how every civil servant and contractor has stepped up to move the NASA mission forward while looking out for the health, safety, and well-being of the entire team. NASA represents the best of America, and the best of American values: hard work, determination, and ingenuity. And this agency has proven, time and again, that anything is possible when we come together, break down barriers, create opportunities, and imagine a new tomorrow.

We face unprecedented challenges in our country today with a public health crisis, economic challenges, and a reckoning with racial injustice and inequality. And all of us – as Americans and as public servants – are called to meet those challenges.

The Biden-Harris Administration’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, combating climate change, and creating economic opportunity for all Americans is real – and we all have a role to play in turning that commitment into action. At NASA, we embrace diversity because we understand that different opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives create an enriching environment that fuels innovation and personal growth. Every difference of opinion, background, or perspective is an opportunity to learn and build relationships in the workplace that will make us stronger as an agency and as individuals. This is how we get through difficult times. It’s also how we achieve missions of unparalleled complexity and ambition that inspire the world.

As new members of the NASA leadership team join us and we prepare for an exciting future, we want everyone to know the following:

  • Your safety, dignity, and right to be seen, heard, and respected are paramount
  • Your contributions to the NASA mission are critical to our success
  • Your hard work has been and will continue to be key to helping us move beyond any challenges we face.

We have some initial appointments from the new administration: Alicia Brown has been named NASA’s Associate Administrator for Legislative Affairs and Intergovernmental Affairs (OLIA), and Marc Etkind will be the Associate Administrator for Communications. Please join us in giving them a warm welcome to the NASA family. There will be other new faces arriving at Headquarters, and we will communicate these developments with you.

We are excited about the opportunities that await us –the Perseverance Mars landing; the next Launch America mission; our focus on the study of our home planet; and returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon, and then on to Mars. All of this, and so much more, will be accomplished with the incredible team of civil servants, contractors, and partners we call the NASA family.

Be safe and continue looking out for each other. Together, we can and will achieve great things.

Steve Jurczyk

Acting Administrator

& Bhavya Lal

Senior White House Appointee

Bhavya Lal (from her LinkedIn page)

Lal is very well known in the space policy community through her work at the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) of the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA).  With bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and a master’s degree in technology and policy from MIT, Lal has led or participated in STPI studies on a wide array of space policy issues and testified to Congress many times.  She also has served on many committees for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  She was a member of the Biden Agency Review Team for NASA.

Alicia Brown (from her LinkedIn page)

Brown has been the key Democratic space staffer for the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee since 2015, supporting Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA). From 2010-2013 she was a legislative aide to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) after serving as an intern in his office in 2008.  In between, she worked for Harris Corporation as government relations manager.  She has a bachelor’s degree in international affairs and economics and a master’s in international relations from Florida State University.

Etkind was general manager of the Discovery-owned Science Channel until February 2020. Etkind does not appear to have a LinkedIn page and his Twitter feed (@pinballme) says “these tweets are protected.” Other information on the Internet says he has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Brown University and was a researcher at The Falkner Island Tern Project for U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Mount Desert Island (MDI) Biological Laboratory and Yale School of Medicine before becoming a television programming executive.

The change in command at the White House today meant the departure of Bridenstine and Morhard.

Bridenstine is a former Navy pilot and Congressman. During his two-and-a-half terms in the House representing a district in Oklahoma, he served on the House Armed Services Committee and House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and was a strong advocate for space.  A conservative Republican, his views questioning climate change made his nomination as NASA Administrator quite controversial, however, and he was confirmed in April 2018 on a party-line 50-49 vote.  He soon won over skeptics, however, and his indefatigable efforts to maintain bipartisan support for a suite of balanced NASA programs including human spaceflight, earth and space science, technology development, and aeronautics won praise from all sides.  The overwhelming sense today is that he will be deeply missed.

In a short video posted to Twitter today, it is clear he will miss NASA, too.

Keeping his shoulder to the grindstone until the very end, Bridenstine participated in a media briefing last night about the Space Launch System Green Run test.  Asked about his plans, he said he did not know what was next, but that he would be staying in Oklahoma and looks forward to seeing his children’s soccer games and other family events he has missed over the years he has been in Washington.

Morhard, a former Senate Deputy Sergeant at Arms and former Senate Appropriations Committee staffer who was confirmed as Deputy Administrator in 2018, tweeted that he, too, will miss the agency and posted a video highlighting Bridenstine’s accomplishments.


Note: this article has been updated and the title changed.

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