NASA, White House

Gration gyrations

Earlier this week is appeared that former Air Force major general Jonathan Scott Gration would be nominated this week as NASA administrator. However, the week has come and gone, and although Mike Griffin had his farewell ceremony Friday at NASA headquarters, there has still been no formal word on who will succeed him.

In an article that will appear in next week’s Space News and posted online last night [temporary link], Gration is still seen as the likely nominee. The article does note that Sen. Bill Nelson’s comments critical of Gration may have created a “potential roadblock”, particularly since Nelson sits on the Senate committee that will hold hearings on the nomination. The article cites a statement from Nelson on Friday (not (yet) published on the senator’s web site) where he says he wants Griffin’s replacement to be someone like Griffin himself, who Griffin called a “good man” and a “good administrator”: “I am hopeful that the administration’s selection to replace him has similar experience and knowledge of the space program as Mike does.”

Also noted in the article: Charlie Bolden, the former astronaut who got attention (and Nelson’s endorsement) last week as a potential candidate for the job, said he still hasn’t been contacted by anyone on the Obama transition team about the job—which seems to suggest that, at this late stage, he’s not a likely candidate for the job.

One other bit of trivia: Gration was among the guests at a “small dinner” with the president-elect in Washington last week to talk primarily about foreign policy issues.

16 comments to Gration gyrations

  • mike shupp

    My uninformed 2 cents…

    It doesn’t strike me, from the information we’ve seen so far, that Gration would be a particularly inspiring “leader” at NASA, or that he would be a take-charge kind of guy with a new conception of how the VSE ought to be implemented, or anything else of that sort. He strikes me as a head-knocker.

    My suspicion now is that the “space community” — including but not limited to the space blogosphere — did not actually persuade Obama to adopt all our notions of the importance of space exploration and human expansion into space in the course of his Presidential campaign, though it did persuade him to alter his rhetoric. What I think he “learned” this past year is that space is a hotwire issue for many people, and that this “community” is a divided fractious one, with exponents for manned flight and robotic exploration and “mission to earth” geo-science and free enterprise-above all else fundamentalism, which will not be satisfied by a single magic speech or presidential gesture.

    Space is not so simple an issue as expanding the National Park system or rebuilding decepit bridges and dams or funding Social Security for the next fifty years in other words. And my suspicion is that he may have come to regard this as … annoying. As a problem to be solved by imposing a little Presidential will, and straightening up a “mess” by making it clear to everyone what the US space program might legitimately hope to achieve in the remainder of the century and what the Federal government’s role might be and what it will not be.

    I don’t know whether or not Gration is going to be Obama’s instrument to make these changes visible at NASA, but I think we’re going to see someone like Gration in the Administrator’s chair. I think we’re going to see an awful lot of people retiring from the agency. I think we’re going to see a great deal of “new blood” attuned to Obama’s ideas of what is reasonable for spaceflight rather than ours.

    And I don’t think most of us — even the people most vociferous about what a horrible wasteful obstructionist do-nothing bureaucratic fascist mess NASA has become — is going to be terribly pleased.

    end — my 2 cents.

  • MarkWhittington

    Mike may be up to something. My best guess, subject to change, is that we’re in for pretty much status quo, but with a little more money, especially to Earth Science.

  • red

    Based on the following from the NASA piece of the stimulus package, Mark is right about more money for Earth Science, which should be no surprise. This looks like just a down payment for a number of new Earth Science missions. I’m not sure which are the Tier 1 ones, but the National Academies recommended 17 Earth Science missions (15 for NASA) be added over the next decade or so at a total cost of about $7B.

    “Within the funds provided, not less than $250 million will be used to accelerate the development of the Tier 1 set of Earth science/climate research missions recommended by the National Academies decadal survey as being critically important for answering key Earth science/climate research questions.” – stimulus package text

    This change in priority is unsurprising given the things Obama has emphasized, Obama’s space policy documents (new and old), the new Congress, and the reductions NASA’s Earth Science area experienced this decade.

    Personally, I don’t have any problem adding the stimulus funding to this instead of NASA human spaceflight. It certainly can be done in the spirit of the basic VSE goals (economic, science, security, commercial participation, international participation, and sustainability/affordability). I think those are good goals, regardless of the destination.

    The big question to me is, if NASA is going to have a big shift to Earth Sciences, will it all be done the traditional ways (certainly much of it will), or will a lot of it be done using innovative commercial approaches (like using suborbital RLVs, smallsats, commercial deals like DigitalGlobe and GeoEye made, hosted payloads on comsats, etc)? That will determine how well the “commercial participation” goal is met.

    Furthermore, will NASA’s astronaut program get more involved (doing Earth science on the ISS or other stations, doing Earth Science satellite servicing)?

  • anonanon

    To clarify a bit: what the National Academies study recommended was a return to a previous level of Earth science funding. Earth sciences got gutted early in this decade for various reasons. Actually, if you really want to get into it, the money started coming out during the Clinton administration (because NASA had not produced a viable Earth sciences plan); Bush was simply unenthusiastic about the subject and at the same time NOAA and DoD were making a mess out of the NPOESS program, which caused a lot of damage to Earth science planning.

    The decadal survey called for restoring the cuts and re-balancing the program, as well as repairing the damage done by NPOESS. All in all, it is not a radical departure from previous plans.

  • anonanon

    If the Space News story is accurate, it indicates that the Obama team stumbled a bit. They should have known from prior statements that Nelson needed to be treated with kid gloves. He endorsed Mike Griffin staying at the agency, after all, so they should have met with him privately to discuss Gration. Instead, it looks like Gration’s name leaked and then Nelson objected, forcing the Obama team to fall back and regroup. You never want to go into a confirmation hearing that you think you will lose.

  • Al Fansome

    ANONANON: You never want to go into a confirmation hearing that you think you will lose.

    1) It is pretty clear that this was a trial balloon on Gration to get the reaction of interested parties (like Nelson). This is much more efficient than trying to figure out who you think is interested.

    2) Obama will listen to the input of Nelson, and others, and still make up his own mind.

    3) I doubt that Obama will lose if he nominates Gration. The vast majority of Senators will want to let Obama pick his own people, unless they have a good reason to fight. Most Senators will save their powder. They will not want to fight over who is NASA Administrator, as NASA is not considered to be that important. At the same time Nelson will not want to fight a confirmation battle — he wants to influence the nomination itself. If he loses a confirmation battle, he then risks losing all influence at NASA.

    FWIW,

    - Al

  • anonanon

    But Nelson’s views were known. All they had to do was meet with him and ask him before they went public. It would not have taken much and they could have avoided the embarrassment.

  • Al Fansome

    ANONANON: But Nelson’s views were known. All they had to do was meet with him and ask him before they went public. It would not have taken much and they could have avoided the embarrassment.

    1) What embarrassment?? Gration has not been officially announced as the nominee, and it is not an embarrassment to the President-elect to float a trial balloon, generate more information, and then maybe make up his mind to go with somebody else. This is what trial balloons are for.

    2) Why would Obama treat Nelson special? He does not owe Nelson anything. (In fact, it gives me hope that they are not giving Nelson special treatment.)

    3) Now that Nelson has made his views publicly known, guess who will be embarrassed if Gration actually becomes NASA Administrator?

    FWIW,

    - Al

    “Politics is not rocket science, which is why rocket scientists do not understand politics.”

  • MajorTom

    “But Nelson’s views were known. All they had to do was meet with him and ask him before they went public.”

    These two statements are contradictory. If “Nelson’s views were known”, then there would be no need to “meet with him and ask him” about a candidate before their name became known publicly.

    Please, let’s think before we type.

  • Ben the Space Brit

    My thoughts:

    A lot depends on what soon-to-be President Obama wants out of NASA as a whole. If it is going to be ‘business as usual’ (possibly with a short-term Shuttle extension), he would be smart to re-appoint Mike Griffin. The man already knows what levers to pull, after all, so he would probably get the job done better than someone new.

    However, if Obama is planning a serious change to NASA, probably by shifting the focus to monitoring Earth’s situation (and possibly planetary defence from PHOs), then he will need to find someone new. Dr. Griffin is, after all, a believer, no matter what you think of his methods and technical ideas. He would not want to be part of a shift away from manned deep-space exploration.

    Similarly, if Obama is planning a ‘clean sweep’ to NASA, radically changing the goals or seriously changing the technologies to be used by Project Constellation, then, again, he will need someone new. Dr. Griffin’s ideas and preferences are a matter of public record and he would likely be unwilling to be the hand that cans his own creations and brain-children.

  • My 2 cents, FWIW

    I think what might be behind the decision with Gration, assuming it is Gration, is Obama is sending in someone to troubleshoot and investigate what space can actually realistically do for us in the near term future, and what the likely costs are. I explain my reasoning in great depth here, but it boils down to this – this is an area of policy that Obama doesn’t have a lot of experience, there are a lot of debates going on (unmanned vs manned, shuttle extension vs ESAS vs Direct vs EELV derived, NewSpace viability, SSP viability, and so on), and there are a lot of claims made by multiple sides of the debates as well.

    Obama would most likely appoint someone he trusts to do the investigation for him, and that seems to be the situation with Gration.

    My 2 cents

  • Michael A

    Screw Sen. Nelson. He is an authorizer with little power and has demonstrated he has few brains. Who is Nelson to push back at the President-Elect’s selection? The only way change is going to come about at NASA is to bring in people with no bias or pre-conceived notions of how the agency should conduct business. We also need someone who is willing to take a fresh look at how NASA’s programs align with national goals. The human exploration program has yet to come up with a compelling rationale on how sending four government workers to the Moon will advance national priorities.

    For those who fear that Gration is a military man, get over it. There are worse things that could happen than having an Administrator who has experience in running large programs and who has a personal connection to the President. I’d rather have someone who is close to the President over someone who is close to Bill Nelson.

  • I wonder if the Obama Administration actually wants Gration somewhere else, involving aerospace, but used NASA to send up a trial ballon. If the only complaints they get are his lack of experience with NASA, then they can give hime the job they want to give him. Otherewise it looks like the critics were listen to and Obama changed his mind.

  • [...] Air Force major general Jonathan Scott Gration, although an announcement that once seemed imminent has been delayed, perhaps because of objections by Sen. Bill Nelson. Eventually, though, either Gration or someone else will be formally nominated. What will then be [...]

  • ErinM

    Get someone in there with a scientific view of space, not militaristic.

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