We are now into the first week of May and there is no NASA administrator. Why not?
"On Cusp of Big Transition, NASA Lacks Permanent Leader"
May 4th, 2009
The New York Times
May 4th, 2009
The New York Times
President Obama has yet to name the person he wants to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. In this delay Mr. Obama has company: President George W. Bush did not decide on his choice, Sean O'Keefe, until November of his first year in office.
But NASA is on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation transition, winding down space shuttle flights and construction of the International Space Station before ramping up ambitions for a return to the moon and an eventual trip to Mars.
Since Michael D. Griffin stepped down as NASA administrator in January, Christopher Scolese, a longtime NASA official, has served in the role on an interim basis. A new NASA boss, however, will arrive at the agency too late to take part in several important decisions. Mr. Scolese and other NASA officials are in the middle of putting together the agency's 2010 budget, which may be unveiled as soon as this week.
Last year, Congress instructed NASA to keep open the possibility of flying the shuttle after 2010. But that mandate expired Thursday, and that day NASA announced the first major round of layoffs among shuttle contractors, about 160 workers, and up to 900 jobs will be eliminated by the end of the fiscal year in September as the agency moves forward on the assumption that there will be, at most, nine flights left.
The new administrator will also step into a contentious debate over whether development of the next generation of rockets, known as the Constellation program, has gone awry with technical problems or whether it is struggling just because it has received less financing than originally promised.
Constellation managers decided last month to trim the capacity of the new crew capsule, at least initially, from six astronauts to four. The program had been developing two versions — a six-seater for the space station and Mars and a four-seater for lunar missions — and managers say the six is not needed for now.
They are considering other major changes in the development of the Ares I, the first of the Constellation rockets, including eliminating one of the test flights to improve the chances of keeping to the schedule of launching the first astronauts in March 2015.
The delay in naming a top administrator has revived speculation that NASA and space exploration are low priorities for Mr. Obama.
An early Obama campaign document in 2007 proposed delaying the Constellation rockets by five years to pay for an education initiative. Mr. Obama later stated that he favored the current goal, devised in the aftermath of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, to return to the moon by 2020.
On the Senate floor last month, Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who is one NASA’s primary Congressional champions, said he considered Mr. Obama a strong supporter of the agency. But Mr. Nelson expressed frustration at the lack of a nominee for its top job.
"NASA is adrift," he said, "because it doesn't have a vigorous leader, appointed by the Obama administration, to take charge — someone who understands space flight, who understands management, who understands aeronautics."
Scott Pace, a former NASA official and director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said he had "not much" concern about the delay, noting that many positions in other parts of the federal government also remain unfilled.
"You have a career person who's there who's extremely competent," he said of Mr. Scolese.
Dr. Pace said naming an administrator was not urgent, because the Obama administration appeared to agree with the post-Columbia vision for space exploration set forth by the Bush administration that received bipartisan support in Congress. It is "not as if there's a policy uncertainty," he said.
In a speech to the National Academy of Sciences last week, Mr. Obama made several references to NASA and the exploration of space. But the references were all nostalgic.
"You know, the average age in NASA's mission control during the Apollo 17 mission was just 26," Mr. Obama said, referring to the last human visit to the Moon 37 years ago. "I know that young people today are just as ready to tackle the grand challenges of this century."
Space exploration was not among Mr. Obama's present-day grand challenges. Other than a quick mention of NASA's role in climate research, he did not talk about what he wanted the space agency to accomplish. He said he would seek to double the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the Energy Department's Office of Science and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. He did not promise more money for NASA.
In a speech last month to the National Space Club, Dr. Griffin, the former administrator, said that the Constellation program had received $12 billion less than originally proposed by the Bush administration and that after a slight increase this year, the budget would go down by $3.5 billion over the next four years.
"Funding for lunar return in the Constellation program was already less than $4 billion in the years prior to 2015," Dr. Griffin said. "This was to be allocated to early work on the Ares 5 heavy-lifter, and the Altair lunar lander. With only a half-billion dollars now available, this work cannot be done."
What NASA will do once it gets back to the Moon may also change. In testimony to a House appropriations subcommittee, Mr. Scolese said the agency might scale back plans for a permanent outpost.
The new administrator will face the difficult task of juggling the work force, both in NASA and at its contractors, as shuttle workers are laid off before new jobs emerge in the Constellation program. The administrator may also revisit the long-debated question of whether NASA’s mission could be better accomplished through more robotic spacecraft like the highly successful Mars rovers rather than much more expensive human space flight.
Among the robotic missions, there is a question of looking up at the planets and distant universe versus looking down at Earth. Mr. Obama’s budget outline in February proposed a greater emphasis on Earth science.
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