Congress, NASA, White House

Does NASA need a new administrator? Yes, but…

It’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks—indeed, even in recent days—that NASA and the White House will need to make some major decisions in the very near future about the agency’s future direction. At the end of the month NASA will be free to resume preparations to retire the shuttle as a provision in the NASA authorization act passed last year expires, and it appears current agency leadership will do so, despite efforts (or at least pleas) from shuttle supporters in Congress to at least allow the flyout of the remaining missions slip into 2011.

Then there are the problems with Constellation. AviationWeek.com reported Wednesday that Orion may only be able to carry four astronauts, not six, to the ISS because of weight issues. The same day the Orlando Sentinel reported that NASA had pushed back its internal date for the first ares 5 lunar flight from 2018 to 2020, putting in greater doubt the ability of NASA under the current architecture to return humans to the Moon by 2020. Meanwhile, an Aerospace Corporation study reportedly argues that an EELV-based system could launch Orion.

All this is taking place, of course, with only an acting administrator at NASA. And that has some people perturbed. “Yet the apparent indecision from Obama, which if nothing else suggests to NASA employees that they rate lower on the President’s priorities than choosing a dog, is now causing some significant programmatic problems,” writes Eric “SciGuy” Berger in the Houston Chronicle. (Nevermind that the administration reportedly had several candidates for the job only to have them opposed by key Senators. Or that, last I checked, the president’s dog is not a position that requires Senate confirmation.) Moreover, the NASA administrator rumor mill has been quiet of late: the latest report, in a NASASpaceFlight.com article published overnight, claimed that former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver “was expected to named [sic] the new NASA Administrator earlier in the week according to sources”. (The language makes it uncertain if Garver herself, previously considered a likely candidate for deputy administrator, was going to be nominated, or if she was going to be recommending someone.)

However, while we can agree that it’s better to have a NASA administrator than to not have one, it’s not at all certain that having one right now would ameliorate much of the uncertainty surrounding the agency’s future. A lot of big decisions NASA is currently facing, including whether to extend the shuttle and what to do about Constellation, have implications that would likely require at least coordination with, if not approval from, the White House. (And then there’s Congress, a whole other story.) And the administration is, apparently, examining those issues: the NASASpaceFlight.com report cited above also states that Garver will be leading a “major content review” of Constellation, with a separate review being led by NASA Ames director Pete Worden (the link between the two panels isn’t made explicit in the article.)

Another thing to keep in mind is that even if the White House nominated someone for the job today (hey, anything’s possible…) it would still be several weeks, if not a couple of months, before he or she would take office: besides a confirmation hearing and full Senate vote there’s always the possibility any Senator could put a hold on the nomination for any reason, even completely unrelated to the job, as what happened to John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco, OSTP director and NOAA administrator nominees, earlier this year. That suggests that it might be early summer at the earliest before a new administrator will be in office, by which time a decision may have already been made on the future of the shuttle and another all teed up regarding the future of Constellation.

35 comments to Does NASA need a new administrator? Yes, but…

  • Thanks for the balanced view of things Jeff. I admit that I’ve been disappointed with the lack fo direction or involvement in the space realm by Obama. But it is nice to see someone talking up both sides of the argument. I’m not saying Obama has handled this well, but he has made some attempts at filling the role. Great article.

  • Paul Snyder

    Before the nay-sayers and contrarians chime in I agree with Terence. Nice post.

  • John Malkin

    It’s interesting you put this up because I have been thinking the last couple of weeks that maybe the White House will eliminate the NASA Administrator completely in it’s current form. NASA is still continuing to operate without all his roles. Obviously that can’t continue forever but…

    Could there be a bigger change in the works? Moving these policy decision to another person or group? Has anyone heard anything new about the advisory board?

    Maybe the OMB (just kidding) but how about something like the CAIB team?

  • Ferris Valyn

    Well, if I might suggest a name, that I think would do well – Lennard Fisk. Although I am optimistic regardless of who Obama chooses, I do think Dr. Fisk would be a great administrator

    In anycase, Mr. Malkin – are you referring to the National Aeronautics and Space Council?

  • Jeff Foust

    John: I don’t see any evidence that the White House is trying to “eliminate” the position of NASA administrator. Just because it’s taking a while to fill doesn’t mean they’re not interested in it: it’s taken a while to fill some other key positions as well, and the Obama Administration has at least put forward some potential nominees only to get pushback from the Senate, particularly Sen. Bill Nelson.

  • Major Tom

    “It’s interesting you put this up because I have been thinking the last couple of weeks that maybe the White House will eliminate the NASA Administrator completely in it’s current form. NASA is still continuing to operate without all his roles. Obviously that can’t continue forever but…”

    I’d argue that folks need to calm down about getting a new NASA Administrator in office. Although it’s been disappointing to see a few very good candidates get rejected for dumb reasons or pull themselves out of the running, it’s important to remember that the NASA Administrator is usually not nominated, nevertheless appointed, this early into a new Presidency and Congress. The Bush II Administration’s first nominee for NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, wasn’t nominated until mid-November 2001 and wasn’t confirmed until late December 2001. That was 10 to 11 months after the inauguration and during a similar budget crisis in the ISS program. We’re only at the four- to five-month mark now.

    People tend to care about getting a NASA Administrator into office quickly because they hope it will be someone that changes the status quo in favor of their programs or priorities. But folks should also remember that the nominee is just as likely to be someone that goes against their programs and priorities. On a scale of months to a year, who becomes NASA Administrator is much more important than when they become NASA Administrator.

    “Could there be a bigger change in the works? Moving these policy decision to another person or group? Has anyone heard anything new about the advisory board?”

    The office of NASA Administrator isn’t going away, but if you reead Mr. Foust’s post and follow the link to the nasaspaceflight.com article, it appears that the White House will pursue a blue ribbon panel to rethink some or all aspects of the civil human space flight program.

    FWIW…

  • The Bush II Administration’s first nominee for NASA Administrator, Sean O’Keefe, wasn’t nominated until mid-November 2001 and wasn’t confirmed until late December 2001. That was 10 to 11 months after the inauguration and during a similar budget crisis in the ISS program.

    Except that NASA had an administrator during that time. The administration didn’t get rid of Goldin until they had a replacement (though Courtney Stadd was baby sitting him). This will be the first time in a long time that NASA hasn’t had an administrator for so long (the last time I can recall was when Beggs was out of pocket due to his legal problems in the mid eighties).

  • I do agree, though, that who is much more important than when.

  • John Malkin

    Sorry I hadn’t read all the links yet. I think the administration does care about space and I think very much. I have no idea what’s actually going on inside the White House but only a feeling that maybe something bigger was going to happen, something new. I’m an optimist. Either way I think the White House should take their time to select an Administrator.

  • common sense

    I think (and hope too!) that people are trying to read way too much into the WH interest for NASA and the delayed appointment. Patience! If they are trying to make it right they have a lot of work to do, including the revived National Air and Space Council. Their first order probably was and continues to be that they need to understand what NASA is like today (budget, programs, etc). Then, since they already formulated a policy, they need to know how to properly get the budget and hopefuly this time it’ll be long term planning. Then they need to find the right person to execute the policy which will be a very unforgiving and challenging job if NASA is to move away from the status quo. As we saw with Sen. Nelson for example. In all logic Shuttle will be terminated if they want to fund a derivative of Constellation. I am sure that, notwthstanding the risks, they will consider an extension but I seriously believe it will not happen. They also have to look how to integrate better with our international partners. Let’s think out of the box for one minute. What harm does it do to us if we hitch rides on Soyuz or Shenzou WHILE we actually develop a new generation of vehicles? We are already forced to do it to some extent. Why not calm down, slow down a bit and come up with the right architecture? Instead of this rushed down the throat version of Constellation.

    Anyway. Interesting times.

  • Edgar Zapata

    Common sense wrote-
    “In all logic Shuttle will be terminated if they want to fund a derivative of Constellation”

    Yet – lest we forget – in our penchant for rush, a requirement of any replacement system must be that when that day comes that it’s time to develop a replacement, that is a replacement in the 2040′s or 50s, that the shut-down of the system not be a requisite necessary to clear up funds for developing the new system.

    And yet this is being forgotten by emphasizing what it costs to “get there”, what it costs to develop the system, to the EXCLUSION of considering what it will cost every year thereafter. We may take 5, 10, 15 or 20 years to develop a Shuttle replacement, to hear the numbers and ranges, but we would likely operate and produce the system for 20, 30 or more years thereafter.

    So, whatever the next system, if we are not considering it’s annual RECURRING production and operations costs then we are setting ourselves up again to have the new system suck all dollars into it’s recurring phase. Development will disappear as a capability, enlisted to operations and production. Then one day many years hence, another gap. Another debate saying we must stop one system to free up funds to develop another. Except then it will be Cx we are talking about having to “terminate” to fund a new direction (perhaps hypersonic? perhaps reusable? who knows?)

    Lets not forget RECURRING ANNUAL PRODUCTION AND OPERATIONS COSTS.

    Now the difficult realization. To be sustainable in the way described previously requires either (1) more money, if the system for human space transport were to be more expensive than today as a percent of the top-line NASA budget OR (2) a system significantly improved in safety, productivity and cost – that goes Beyond-Earth-Orbit launching as often as Shuttle per year for about the same yearly cost as Shuttle – assuming the same percent of the NASA budget for human space flight as today.

    The later (2) is the option that in it’s difficulty and challenge everyone is shying away from admitting. We are stepping away from the challenge at the table. Perhaps because the former (1) presumes NASA will be immune to federal budget pressures. Yet which “assumption” is truly the more ridiculous?

    The 2 competing basic assumptions going forward, with number (2) being the most stated, could be phrased as -

    Assumption 1: We must SIGNIFICANTLY improve human space flight RECURRING production and operations costs, safety and reliability, essentially developing a system that once operational gives access to Lunar, NEO, and LEO but at costs similar to Shuttle (LEO only) yearly recurring costs.

    -OR-

    Assumption 2: NASA will be immune to federal budget pressures in the decade of the 2010′s and get significantly larger budgets than ever seen since Apollo as everyone in the stakeholder chain finally “gets the message” they somehow did not till now.

    So again, which is the assumption to be made?

    Occam’s razor comes to mind.

  • Major Tom

    “Except that NASA had an administrator during that time. The administration didn’t get rid of Goldin until they had a replacement (though Courtney Stadd was baby sitting him). This will be the first time in a long time that NASA hasn’t had an administrator for so long (the last time I can recall was when Beggs was out of pocket due to his legal problems in the mid eighties).”

    A fair point. But I might also argue that there may not be much difference between a lame duck Administrator, like Goldin during Bush II, and an acting Administrator, like Scolese now. In either case, you know that the current occupant in the Administrator’s suite is there on a very temporary basis.

    But I’m picking nits… FWIW…

  • common sense

    @ Edgar Zapata:

    The answer is YES if you see what I mean.

    More seriously, I’d love #1 and please note I said a “derivative” of Constellation. But to get there will most likely cost orders of magnitude upfront. It woudl require a lot of science and innovation that were directed against in the early stages of CEV. the Who will do it?

    This variant of Constellation (probably should say variant of VSE) was done the “easy” way, budgetwise anyway: Slash everything, put all you have in and fly soon. And as we can all see now: BIG MISTAKE. People forgot nobody knew how to redo Apollo, much less something that is NOT Apollo.

    As a side note it is interesting to see that Orion would only fly once or twice a year to the Moon, like Shuttle, at probably the same cost. And reusability is at best questionable. Flight rate for an architecture such as Constellation is probably more key, not necessarily reusability. You want to fly often at a lower cost it’ll come down to EELVs+Capsule, the whole thing being expendable.

    Now if we choose reusability and the likes that is a totally different story. And today’s Shuttle is not the answer.

  • Karl Hallowell

    Besides, we heard for months rumors of a parade of people for the NASA administrator job. If true (and that’s a lot of rumors to be collectively otherwise), that implies a great deal of interest in the Whitehouse. My view is that instead the issue is that there’s a strong debate going on for the future of the US space program.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    I wonder why two blue ribbon panels are being proposed. I can see lots of opportunity for overlap and working at cross purposes.

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  • I wonder why two blue ribbon panels are being proposed.

    Probably one to deal specifically with urgent space transportation issues, and the other to take a broader view of the whole federal space program.

  • Major Tom

    “I wonder why two blue ribbon panels are being proposed. I can see lots of opportunity for overlap and working at cross purposes.”

    There’s only one blue ribbon panel led by OSTP in the nasaspaceflight.com article. The other two reviews are internal to NASA: Worden’s to revisit ESAS, and Garver’s to reassess Constellation content.

    Reading for comprehension…

  • The other two reviews are internal to NASA: Worden’s to revisit ESAS, and Garver’s to reassess Constellation content.

    How are ESAS and Constellation different in any useful way? This does seem like overlap. Is the idea that Worden will redo the sixty-day study? Or review it? And how does that not involve “Constellation content”?

  • common sense

    @Major Tom:

    < There’s only one blue ribbon panel led by OSTP in the nasaspaceflight.com article. The other two reviews are internal to NASA: Worden’s to revisit ESAS, and Garver’s to reassess Constellation content.>

    It looks to me like they are somehow trying out how the National Air and Space Council might work in the future. At a smaller scale: OSTP+NASA. More later?

  • Major Tom

    “How are ESAS and Constellation different in any useful way? This does seem like overlap. Is the idea that Worden will redo the sixty-day study? Or review it? And how does that not involve “Constellation content”?”

    The review of Constellation content is an attempt to get that program back in the box. It’s a budget-cutting versus risk-taking/requirement-reducing exercise.

    Revisiting ESAS is reassessing the overall approach — is Constellation or another architecture/set of vehicles the right path forward from here?

    FWIW…

  • Alan Ladwig

    NASA has an Administrator: his name is Chris Scolese who is serving in an Acting capacity. He is doing a terrific job of leading the agency and is in routine contact with senior officials at OSTP and OMB. Under his leadership we have had successful EELV and Shuttle launches; received $2 B in additional funding; laid out plans for new hires; responded to request for meetings with members of Congress; and has chaired all necessary internal management councils.

    I have addressed a number of NASA management seminars and have asked for a show of hands to see who feels their job is impacted by the fact that a new Administrator has not been named; I have yet to see a single hand raised. When asked by a member of the press if he was concerned that an Administrator had yet to be named, not even ISS crew member Mike Barratt seemed to be losing sleep over the issue.

    The Obama Administration will name a new Administrator when they have identified the right candidate. From a historical stand point we are well within the norm. While James Webb reported within three weeks of the Inaugural and Tom Paine was approved within 8 weeks, it took 21 to 28 weeks for three other Administrators to be approved who came in office as a result of an election. The level of expectation was raised because a candidate was identified prior to the Inauguration. However, objections were raised during the political process and we are where we are.

    The concerns of many will be relieved when details on NASA Stimulus spending is released and when the FY 2010 budget goes to the Hill. In the meantime, the Agency is in good hands with Chris Scolese.

  • Habitat Hermit

    Making (rather big) decisions and finding/creating consensus for them before finding someone for Administrator who will actively and sincerely support and implement them instead of shooting off on a wild tangent sounds like a good approach to me (and if that’s what the Obama administration is doing then kudos to them but I suspect it might be accidental if that’s how things turn out). And yes Obama’s choice of dog does not belong in the picture, if nothing else let’s give him a break on that ^_^

    Great article/post.

  • The review of Constellation content is an attempt to get that program back in the box. It’s a budget-cutting versus risk-taking/requirement-reducing exercise.

    Revisiting ESAS is reassessing the overall approach — is Constellation or another architecture/set of vehicles the right path forward from here?

    OK, but it’s still hard to see how you separate those conjoined twins. They have to at least coordinate with each other.

  • Thank you for your input, Alan. I have no problems with Chris Scolese, per se. My concern is about what the ultimate policy will be.

  • Not to take away anything from my thanks for your input, Alan, I have to say that I find the following meaningless:

    I have addressed a number of NASA management seminars and have asked for a show of hands to see who feels their job is impacted by the fact that a new Administrator has not been named; I have yet to see a single hand raised. When asked by a member of the press if he was concerned that an Administrator had yet to be named, not even ISS crew member Mike Barratt seemed to be losing sleep over the issue.

    I wouldn’t expect otherwise. That doesn’t mean that they were being totally frank… ;-)

  • Major Tom

    “OK, but it’s still hard to see how you separate those conjoined twins.”

    I think they separate in a fairly logical fashion.

    The first review on Constellation program content answers the question of whether the Constellation program can be saved. (Can enough content be taken out of the program to get it back into the budget and schedule box without taking risk or requirements to unacceptable levels? My two cents is that threshold has already been crossed, but the program arguably deserves one last chance now that Griffin & Co. are gone.)

    The second review to revisit ESAS answers the question of what alternative the agency should pursue if the Constellation program can’t be saved.

    “They have to at least coordinate with each other.”

    The coordination should only be complex if the answer to the first question is ambiguous. If a viable but very unattractive Constellation program can be salvaged, someone will have to weigh the remaining Constellation program against the leading alternatives.

    FWIW…

  • The coordination should only be complex if the answer to the first question is ambiguous.

    Or politically inconvenient…

  • Mark R. Whittington

    “There’s only one blue ribbon panel led by OSTP in the nasaspaceflight.com article. The other two reviews are internal to NASA: Worden’s to revisit ESAS, and Garver’s to reassess Constellation content.”

    The two issues seem to me to overlap quite a bit. Imagine what might happen if the two come to logically inconsistant conclusions.

    “Reading for comprehension…”

    Vey snippy.

  • Major Tom

    “The two issues seem to me to overlap quite a bit. Imagine what might happen if the two come to logically inconsistant conclusions.”

    Already asked and answered. See posts above.

    “Vey [sic] snippy.”

    Yes, I’m “vey” snippy.

    [rolls eyes]

  • Jack Burton

    He, Obama is very busy, NASA is not that big a priority. He needed to find a puppy you know.

    Garver would be disaster. The only thing Garver cares about is Garver and brown nosing powerful democrats.

  • common sense

    Arguments for the sake of it is not really constructive now is it? I am sure it’d be interesting to get the whole crowd of naysayers into a room and come up with a plan for NASA. I (almost) feel sorry for the next Admin.

    If you may allow the plagiarism… [rolls eyes]

  • As usual, Alan Ladwig is clear, concise and on point. Lol. It was a pleasure to read his comment.

  • [...] how serious a power vacuum the lack of a permanent administrator really create has been discussed here recently, today’s Florida Today article does indicate that the perception of a lack of leadership, [...]

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