Congress, NASA

The three things Rep. Giffords is looking for in a NASA administrator

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

Thursday morning Women in Aerospace hosted a breakfast at the Library of Congress featuring Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chair of the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee. Much of her prepared remarks dealt with general space policy issues, as well as the need to get more women into the science and engineering workforce. In the Q&A that followed, though, she was asked about who she thought would be a good administrator, or at least what kind of person should be running the space agency. She didn’t offer any specific names, but she did outline three “totally different skill sets” she felt were needed for the “very tough job” of NASA administrator:

  1. Technical background. “You need to know what you’re talking about,” she said. Having engineering expertise, she said, was critical so that the administrator can critically evaluate any plans presented to him or her.
  2. Managerial skills. The large size of the agency requires someone to be able to manage the agency effectively. (This led to a discussion about how she plans to visit all the NASA field centers over the next two years, having started with a recent trip to nearby Goddard.)
  3. Political aptitude. This is tougher, she admitted. “This is a crazy place, right across the street here,” she said. “You have 435 people who think they know exactly the right way to do anything.” And that doesn’t include the Senate, home to “the 100 biggest egos on the planet.” Getting anything done in Congress, thus, requires skillful navigation of the political waters.

“The president has made some incredible appointments, and we’re looking for someone obviously who’s very talented, who’s got the vision, the expertise, and can make this happen,” she said. “We really have to make sure the president has good people in place so that they can get this job done. We can’t let this vision go.”

It’s interesting to use these criteria against two individuals who may be finalists for the administrator position: Charles Bolden and Nick Lampson. Bolden clearly has the technical expertise, and arguably the managerial one (counting his time in the Marines and the private sector), but how politically savvy is he? Lampson, on the other hand, clearly has political aptitude, but has never run a large organization, and his technical background would largely be limited to what he picked up during his time focusing on space issues in Congress. (And it would make for some… interesting.. subcommittee hearings, as the ranking Republican on Giffords’ subcommittee is Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), who defeated Lampson in November.) Then again, there may be no one left who is equally strong in all three of Giffords’ desired skill sets.

[Disclosure: I'm an officer of Women in Aerospace, but not involved in the selection of event programming.]

8 comments to The three things Rep. Giffords is looking for in a NASA administrator

  • Ferris Valyn

    I’d like to add – agent of change in there as well.

  • Sheridan

    In its traditional cryptic way, the RAS blog is already saying that Lampson is the winner. Recent history says that RAS has very often been proven to be right.

  • Charles In Houston

    As a long time supporter of Nick Lampson, and a long time space industry guy, he is not the right guy to run NASA. I would love to see him in some leadership position in the Interior or something but I do think the Technical Background is the top of the list for a good reason.
    A real dark horse candidate – Jim Oberg. He has Technical Background all right but not a lot of experience running a large organization and very little political experience.

  • SpaceMan

    Dark Horse eah ? Here is one.

    Bryan D. O’Connor – Chief, Safety and Mission Assurance, NASA

    “http://www.nasa.gov/about/highlights/oconnor_bio.html”

  • Ron Carlson

    I think that NASA Acting Administrator Christopher Scolese or NASA Associate Administrator for Space Operations William Gerstenmaier would make far better choices for NASA Administrator then the names so far suggested to replace Mike Griffen.

  • I would reverse Rep. Giffords’ order. As we should have learned with Dr. Griffin, political acumen should come first and foremost in a NASA Administrator. The technical skill should reside in the Associate Administrator and other supporting staff. Then, we need to hope that the Administrator is adept at listening to their technical staff.

    – Donald

  • Major Tom

    It’s hard to know how to handicap Bolden or Lampson in the role of NASA Administrator.

    Either Bolden’s leadership qualities or Lampson’s political experience could be a boon for NASA, especially its human space flight programs. If Bolden applied his military operations experience, led from the front, and took on hard decisions regarding Shuttle and Ares I/Orion, he could be an agent for change and push the agency in new, better, and more efficient directions. Similarly, if Lampson acted on the usual congressional rhetoric about poorly performing programs and was able to use his political connections to give the agency more maneuvering room to dispose of bad and invest in good programs and institution, he could be a transformative, Jim Webb-like figure.

    On the other hand, Bolden’s connections to George Abbey and apparent indebtedness to Sen. Nelson would seem to imply that he’s being put in place to extend Shuttle operations. Similarly, after being so closely associated with a specific NASA field center, it’s hard to see Lampson favoring good program decisions over jobs retention. Either would seem to be at odds with Pres. Obama’s stated desire for a new, forward-looking vision for NASA.

    If they are the two final candidates, here’s hoping it’s the former Bolden or Lampson that shows up in the Administrator’s suite, rather than the latter.

    FWIW…

  • [...] As previously noted, former congressman Nick Lampson is now rumored to be under consideration for the NASA administrator’s job. Lampson is in Colorado Springs for the National Space Symposium, so I asked him about those reports after a press conference by the Coalition for Space Exploration to announce its new board of advisors (which includes Lampson). “It’s a rumor,” he said. “All I can say is that I would be honored if I was asked. I haven’t been asked.” [...]

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