Will the Next NASA Chief Be a Fighter Pilot With Little Space Experience?

By Eliza Strickland | January 15, 2009 9:10 am

Jonathan Scott GrationRumors are flying that President-elect Barack Obama will nominate retired fighter pilot Jonathan Scott Gration to lead NASA, a surprising pick due to Gration’s very limited experience with NASA and the space community. However, the 32-year veteran of the Air Force is close with Obama–the two traveled through Africa together in 2006–and space policy expert John Logsdon says that personal history augers well for the agency: “Obama has picked one of his close personal associates to be the head of NASA. It would make no sense for Obama to send a close associate to an agency (and) then not support the agency” [Houston Chronicle].

Gration spent one year in the 1980s as a White House Fellow working for NASA’s deputy administrator, but that is his only direct experience with the space agency. However, he may have been studying up recently. People familiar with the selection of Gration said he helped craft Obama’s space policy, which calls for the U.S. to minimize the gap between the 2010 retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet and the first piloted flights of successor spacecraft in 2015. Released last August, the policy also calls for returning American astronauts to the moon by 2020 as a precursor to missions to other more distant destinations, such as Mars [Florida Today].

The rumors of Gration’s nomination have already kicked up some resistance. Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who represents the ‘Space Coast’ of Cape Canaveral and its environs, indicated that some members of Congress might want someone with more agency experience. “I think President Bush made a mistake when he appointed someone without NASA experience in Sean O’Keefe to head the agency,” the statement read [Nature News]. O’Keefe, who headed NASA from 2001 to 2005, came to the job from the White House Office of Management and Budget.

But others say that some NASA administrators have done just fine without experience within the agency. Says Logsdon: “There is ample precedent for people without extensive backgrounds in space being selected as NASA administrator, starting with arguably the most successful administrator, Jim Webb” [Nature News]. James Webb was picked by President John Kennedy in 1961 to lead NASA to the moon.

Whoever takes over the job from current NASA administrator Michael Griffin will have big decisions to make. Obama’s transition team has raised questions about the space shuttle’s replacement, the Ares I rocket currently in development, and have floated the possibility of scrapping the expensive rocket and instead using reconfigured military rockets to launch astronauts to the International Space Station and beyond. The next NASA chief will also have to grapple with over-budget and delayed projects like the Mars Science Laboratory, which is now expected to cost about $2.3 billion. Griffin recently mused on the difficulties of his job: “We’re 50 years into the development of spaceflight, and to be honest, we’re not very good at it” [Washington Post].

Related Content:
Bad Astronomy: Scuttlebutt: Scott Gration to be new NASA chief
80beats: Even Beyond Disintegration, Shuttle Utterly Failed to Protect Astronauts
80beats: SpaceX Scores a NASA Contract to Resupply the Space Station
80beats: Obama Team Raises New Questions About NASA’s Plans to Replace the Shuttle
80beats: Next Mars Rover Won’t Take Off Towards Mars Until 2011

Image: USAF


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