President Obama’s first official interaction with NASA appeared to be a success: he was seen smiling as the NASA entry in the inaugural parade, featuring the SS-126 crew and a lunar rover prototype, passed by. Of course, he could have simply been happy that the parade had finally come to an end, since NASA was at the tail end of the long parade. Now, though, work turns more serious as much of the space industry is on tenterhooks about exactly what sort of change the new administration will bring to NASA. What sort of things should people be looking for in the days and weeks to come?
Who will be administrator—and his deputy. Most of the speculation in the last several weeks has focused on who will replace Mike Griffin as NASA administrator. For the last week that speculation has centered around retired 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 interesting is who the administration nominates to be the deputy administrator. Presumably this will be someone who will complement the administrator: someone will considerable NASA or other space experience if an outsider like Gration is nominated, for example.
How the administration will address NASA’s budget. Conventional wisdom is that the new administration won’t be able to put its mark on the agency until the FY2011 budget proposal, given that it’s very late in the cycle for preparing the FY2010 budget. However, the appropriations process has become warped in recent years, with spending bills being delayed well into the fiscal year, or even abandoned in favor of year-long continuing resolutions, as happed for FY2007. That’s the case for FY2009, as much of the federal government, including NASA, is operating under a continuing resolution that expires in March. That suggests there’s more latitude for the administration to make more changes earlier than conventional wisdom suggests—if they so desire.
Another factor that could accelerate change is the new stimulus bill working its way through Congress. For spaceflight advocates, the news isn’t encouraging: the bill includes $600 million for NASA, but for earth sciences, aeronautics, and facilities work, and not for shuttle, Constellation, or related programs. There is an effort to get more money for NASA, specifically for Constellation, but NASA isn’t the only agency looking for more funding.
How, and how quickly, the administration will implement the campaign’s space policy. There are people out there who doubtless hope that new administration will move quickly to reform or even jettison Constellation, or at least Ares 1. Any major changes to the Constellation architecture, though, likely would take time to implement, and also require coordination with Congress, particularly among current advocates of the exploration architecture. The same is true for other elements of the policy, particularly those that require new appropriations or other Congressional consultation.
Some elements, though, could be implemented fairly quickly. One example is the proposal to re-create the National Aeronautics and Space Council to coordinate space policy throughout the federal government. One thing to watch for is when the administration does establish the council and how it’s set up, in particular what authority it’s given to carry out its mandate.
What other relatively near-term issues should people be on the lookout for in the early days and weeks of the Obama Administration?