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:
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.]