by Jim Bell
Jim Bell joined The Planetary Society's Board of Directors in 2005 and became President of the Board in 2008. A professor of astronomy at Cornell University, Bell is also the lead scientist for the Pancam color imaging systems on the Mars Exploration Rovers. Find out more about Jim
NASA seems like a ship adrift in the doldrums these days. Since past Administrator Mike Griffin stepped down along with most other high-level Bush Administration officials in January, NASA has been led by Acting Administrator Chris Scolese. I don't personally know Chris, but from all accounts that I've read and heard he appears to be doing a capable job trying to keep the agency moving towards the goals set out by the previous Administration, while trying to anticipate how those goals will change in the new Administration. However, in the absence of specific new announced NASA policy objectives, and given the present and near-term fiscal climate in Washington, Chris' job must seem relatively impossible. Despite the challenges, though, he seems determined to soldier on: responding forthrightly to requests for Congressional testimony, paying careful attention to shuttle and other flight projects, and trying to buoy morale throughout the space community. He's clearly passionate about his work, and about space exploration. But Chris's position right now is only as a caretaker. Like the rest of us, he's waiting for a new Administrator to be chosen.
The Administrator of NASA is nominated by the President and must be confirmed by the Senate, just like other Administrators of major Federal agencies and Cabinet-level officials (although NASA doesn't have a seat on the Cabinet). I find myself wondering why the Obama administration hasn't gotten around to this yet. Is NASA just not that important to the President, or to the country? While I'm biased, of course, that seems hard for me to believe. I recall watching speeches where Mr. Obama recalls fondly going to see, as a child, the Apollo lunar astronauts return to port in Honolulu after splashdown. There's a twinkle in his eye when he tells the story -- the magnitude of the endeavor for our species, and the sheer heroism of the astronauts themselves, clearly made an impression on him when he was young. He knows that we need to push ourselves out into the space frontier. He knows that the world needs such heroes. He seems to get it. Why, then, the delay in putting someone at the helm to lead our nation in this enterprise?
I've read that part of the "problem" has been Congressional dissatisfaction with some of the individuals who have been vetted by the Obama Administration as potential nominees. For example, it was widely reported not too long ago that Senator Bill Nelson from Florida has a sort of "litmus test" for the NASA Administrator, requiring him or her to be a strong advocate of human spaceflight. Of course one can never know how accurate such reports are, but if true it is perhaps not surprising -- Senator Nelson was a Shuttle astronaut himself, and obviously there are a large number of space-related jobs and businesses in Florida. His motivation might be to "look out for his own" on many levels, then. While it is the responsibility of every member of Congress to look out for their constituents in ways like this, at some point one has to wonder whether the potential negative impacts at NASA of the lack of direction and clear Presidentially-approved leadership offset any gains that individuals in Congress might hope to achieve by getting "their guy" promoted to the top.
Maybe a more pragmatic concern that I have about this delay in picking the NASA Administrator relates to the fact that the proposed NASA budget for fiscal year 2010 has been formulated over the past few months in the absence of input and guidance from this new Administrator. The details of that new NASA budget are going to be announced very soon. I'd like to imagine that Chris Scolese and his cadre of Associate Administrators have been helping to formulate this budget in some detail -- almost certainly with the guidance and support of key individuals in the White House, Office of Management and Budget, and even the Office of the Science Advisor. This new budget will be the first tangible, public expression of how the President views NASA (and especially whether NASA will be seen as having a role in the President's top key areas of energy and education), and how the Administration intends to change (or not) the priorities of the agency. Developing these policies and budgets without inputs from and the approval of a permanent Administrator could make it very awkward for whomever is eventually chosen to enthusiastically and aggressively implement those policies, making it difficult for that person to actively work towards getting that budget approved in Congress.
Maybe the plan will be to promote Chris Scolese to permanent Administrator, or to nominate someone else who has indeed been active behind the scenes in formulating the new proposed budget. That would help to alleviate the potential awkwardness of bringing in a new person who wasn't involved in putting "the new plan" together. Maybe it's all been figured out by clever people with political savvy who know what they're doing and are doing it this way in the best interests of NASA and the country. Maybe their marketing and PR people are telling them to wait to announce the new Administrator until the President makes a big splash speech in July to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. Honestly, I don't have a crystal ball for any of this. Still, I'm trying to be optimistic and believe that someone at or near the top is paying attention to NASA and treating the issue of leadership of the agency as a national priority. For my part, I think it's time for the Administration to step it up and give NASA some clear direction, leadership, and a following wind to fill the sails...
[Incidentally, all of these opinions above are my own -- they don't represent any officially-sanctioned statements or policies from the Society's staff or Board of Directors, on which I serve as President.]