He came with a right hand extended, a smile and telling everyone he met to call him “Jim.”
Maybe that simply makes life easier when your last name is Bridenstine. But for the NASA administrator visiting Arab High School on Friday, Jim Bridenstine wanted to make everyone his friend as he leads an effort to return Americans to the moon in 2024.
He visited with pre-engineering students at the school about 30 miles south of Huntsville, marveled at the competition moon buggy they had built – and rebuilt, they told the space boss, especially for his visit.
He watched a demonstration of a robot built in a six-week, after-school crash program earlier this year by the school’s robotics students – a robot that competed in the world championships in Houston in April.
Bridenstine made no mention of the major announcement he would make hours later at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville – that the center would oversee the lunar lander program.
But as he encouraged students to keep an eye on the space program as a possible career, maybe he wondered if there was some young brainpower in the room that would someday help make a visit to Mars a reality.
“I’ve heard wonderful things about this high school,” Bridenstine said as he spoke to students and school administrators. “Clearly, you guys are doing amazing things here at a very young age. And maybe someday, NASA will be able to enlist you in some of the projects we’re working on.”
Bridenstine came to Arab High at the invitation of and accompanied by U.S. Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, who is the top Republican on the science appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.
“When Robert says, ‘Hey, Jim, why don’t you help with this or help with that or come down to the 4th District of Alabama,’ the answer is ‘Absolutely, we will be there,'” Bridenstine said. “He’s the guy who writes our checks.”
Of course, it takes more than money to get NASA into space and the administrator lauded the students he met with for embracing the challenges in front of them and teachers for guiding the way.
He asked students a series of questions about the construction of the moon buggy and saluted the robotics program for bringing real-world projects into the classroom.
After the robotic demonstration, Bridenstine said, “This is a very relevant program. It closely mimics what NASA does. It’s why this is so valuable.”
And in speaking to about 50 students in the school’s media center following his campus tour, Bridenstine said, “There is no shortage of opportunity for the folks in this room.”
Of course, any NASA event is always made better by an astronaut. Ricky Arnold, a two-time veteran of missions to the International Space Station, told students about his trips to space and answered questions ranging from the G-force during ascent and descent to how astronauts work to stay healthy during months-long missions aboard the space station.
“What I want you thinking about is how you can be a part of this journey,” Arnold told the students.
So does Bridenstine. He invoked the recently celebrated 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing as he spoke to students.
“We want it to be sustainable,” Bridenstine said. “We want it to last. We loved the Apollo program. The challenge is that it came to an end. This time when we go to the moon, we want it to be sustainable.”
From a high school classroom in Arab to the moon to Mars to … hey, who knows?
“What we’re trying to do now,” Bridenstine said, “is put together a new generation of space explorers so that 50 years from now, people will be celebrating what we are doing right now today.”