Jeff Bingham Passes Away at 77

Jeff Bingham Passes Away at 77

Jeff Bingham, whose enduring influence on U.S. space policy over many decades is largely unknown outside the Beltway, died on Friday at the age of 77 after battling throat cancer. Both in the halls of Congress and at NASA, his passion for human spaceflight, sparked by the first launch of the Space Shuttle, never wavered. Working in the background for and with like-minded leaders of the Washington political establishment, his legacy is evident in the International Space Station and the SLS/Orion programs.

Jeff Bingham. Photo credit: Virginia Spaceport Authority.

Bingham spent two tours on Capitol Hill, working first for Senator Jake Garn (R-Utah) and later for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas). Both held powerful positions on the key Senate committees that fund and oversee NASA. In between he worked at NASA focusing mostly on convincing Congress to stay the course with ISS during difficult years of delays and overruns.

After retiring from the federal government, he chaired the Board of Directors of the Virginia Spaceport Authority for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Spaceport Authority operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA, home to Northrop Grumman’s Antares and Rocket Lab’s Electron (and, soon, Neutron).

Born in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Bingham graduated from Utah State University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He worked for Jake Garn, then the mayor of Salt Lake City. When Garn was elected to the Senate, Bingham made the move to D.C. and was his Chief of Staff from 1974-1990.

Garn served on the Senate Aeronautical and Space Sciences Committee that soon became part of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and later as either chair or ranking member (depending on the year) of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA.

In a 2006 NASA oral history, Bingham recounted how in 1981 Garn was invited to the first space shuttle launch, STS-1, and so was he.

NASA invited, of course, the Senator and then his senior staff people. Jake was then, I think he was then, ranking member of that [Senate appropriations] subcommittee. As his Chief of Staff, I was on their list to invite, and I went.

That did it. I saw that launch, and I was hooked.

I attended the next twenty-five launches in succession. In fact, if I wasn’t there, they didn’t launch, it turned out, so I tried to convince NASA that they had to take me down as a good luck charm.

Bingham left the Hill in 1990 to become a consultant to the Synthesis Group developing options for sending people to Mars for President George H. W. Bush’s National Space Council. He then worked for SAIC at Johnson Space Center as a senior policy analyst until joining NASA in 1994 and moving to Headquarters in 1996 to manage the Space Station Information Center or “War Room” advocating for the ISS program as cost overruns and schedule delays frustrated Congress and the Clinton Administration. He was on the Bush-Cheney transition team after the 2000 election and continued serving at NASA until 2004 in senior positions.

He then returned to Capitol Hill to work with Hutchison as staff director for the subcommittee on science and space at the Senate Commerce Committee where he was instrumental in drafting the 2005, 2008 and 2010 NASA authorization acts.  He left the Hill in 2013 after Hutchison retired.

One of his most indelible contributions was creation of the ISS National Laboratory (ISSNL) in the 2005 Act and requirements in the subsequent laws that set aside 50 percent of the available U.S. research capacity on the ISS for non-NASA science. The Center for the Advancement for Science in Space (CASIS) manages the ISSNL. In a statement to today, David Radzanowski, Chair of the CASIS Board of Directors, acknowledged Bingham’s legacy.

The ISS National Lab is part of Jeff’s rich legacy, and our entire team mourns his loss. Seldom in our business does a single individual have the impact that Jeff had on the formation of the National Lab. And he made sure that we stayed true to our purpose. Jeff will be missed, as a space policy leader, and more importantly, as an advocate for space and our work in building a sustainable LEO ecosystem. — Dave Radzanowski, CASIS

Bingham also played a major role in crafting the compromise in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act between the Obama Administration and Congress on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program. Obama created a firestorm in 2010 when he decided to cancel the George W. Bush Administration’s Constellation program to send astronauts back to the Moon by 2020 and to turn development of new crew transportation systems to ferry astronauts to and from the ISS over to the private sector — the commercial crew program. Democrats and Republicans in Congress, worried about the workforce implications of abandoning Constellation at the same time the space shuttle program was being terminated, and skeptical of the private sector’s ability to build commercial crew systems, were united in their opposition to both proposals.

Bingham was the lead Republican staffer in the Senate working with Hutchison and her Democratic counterpart, then-Senator (now NASA Administrator) Bill Nelson to write legislation that both the Administration and Congress could tolerate. The solution was allowing Obama’s commercial crew proposal to proceed, but insisting that development of systems to someday return humans to the Moon continue — the Space Launch System and Orion.

Nelson and Hutchison were among the many posting tributes on X.

An obituary in the East Idaho News offers a touching farewell:

It brings comfort that Jeff is with the previously departed family and friends he loved dearly, left a bright weave in the fabric of American political history, and is among the stars that so greatly inspired him to serve the common good.

A funeral will take place in Idaho Falls on Friday.  A memorial service in Washington is being planned for next month.

Editor’s Note:  I knew Jeff for more years than I can remember. We interacted a lot while I was at the Congressional Research Service as well as the years afterwards. He was always such a positive person — helpful, funny, and genuinely kind.  I’m sorry he never finished his book on the history of the International Space Station. It would have been fascinating to read about those challenging years from his perspective.

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