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.