The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Mike Griffin
While the space community argues who should replace Mike Griffin (above) as NASA admininstrator, other top positions in the space agency should not be overlooked. (credit: j. Foust)

Needed at Obama’s new NASA: the right team at the top

Speculation solely on the NASA administrator misses the problem

The political rumor mill has been rife with possible names for Obama’s NASA chief: e.g., the space scientist (Charles Kennel), the ex-astronaut (Charles Bolden), and the non-space experienced Obama campaign insider (Jonathan Scott Gration).

I’ll only briefly touch on these three names. Of those three, Kennel seems the most logical, competence-based pick. His appointment would be 100% consistent with Obama’s other selections in terms of a resolute focus on climate change as a clear national priority. His selections for the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, administrator of NOAA, Secretary of Energy, and environment policy coordinator all share a common thread of climate change—a thread so big it’s more like a rope. Fitting right in with previous appointments alone is reason to take the rumors of a Kennel pick seriously.

The other two mentioned are less clear. General Gration is an experienced Obama campaign insider who would be an eminently qualified pick—for some other non-space post. NASA needs an administrator who knows more about current space issues than the president and vice president do. And a Bolden appointment would remind knowledgeable spacers of the 1991–2002 period when George Abbey, the former White House staffer and Johnson Space Center director, controlled NASA silently from behind the black curtain, creating many of the problems we have today.

The top NASA team of administrator, deputy administrator, inspector general, and chief financial officer is much more important than having any single “right” individual as administrator alone.

Even a name scientist appointment alone wouldn’t “save” the agency. NASA is Earth’s premier aeronautics and space leadership agency. As critical as climate change is, it is still just one subject. Other issues are just as critical for the agency, including aeronautics research, near-Earth object detection and mitigation (i.e., planetary defense), declining US aerospace competitiveness, aerospace workforce education and human capital growth, and critically needed internal NASA reforms, including organizational, management, and cost management reforms—not to mention human space exploration realignment and right-sizing.

The top NASA team of administrator, deputy administrator, inspector general (IG), and chief financial officer (CFO) is much more important than having any single “right” individual as administrator alone. If the right people are put in the other three positions—strong, experienced people that can handle the list of issues above—then a climate-qualified scientist such as a Kennel (or someone else) really could be an excellent choice. Such a team would look something like this:

• A Deputy Administrator nominee who knows the entire non-Earth science rest of the Agency (in the case of a earth science-type administrator, and is a reformer who not only understands the crying need for basic reforms within NASA, but has enough knowledge of the internal workings of this large, civil service-based, center-centric organization, to be able to make the reforms actually happen. In short, an experienced, reform-minded NASA current or retired civil servant. (And yes, a few of these really do still exist; they all haven’t been killed off—yet).

• A CFO with stellar qualifications, but who already has government experience (i.e., no “how does a federal agency work?” training needed). This person would really do what former administrators said they’d do, but didn’t: fix NASA’s cost estimating, control, and procurement systems.

• An IG who will be an active, competent, independent assessor and reporter of not only NASA programs, but the competence of the NASA organization itself. To that end, one other thing must be added: the IG needs her own small “chief engineer’s office”, reporting directly to the IG, to provide the technical and program expertise the office has lacked in the past. The IG’s office is no longer just about simple audits, yet it has a technically-challenged staff that is geared towards another era. A seasoned, experienced NASA engineer heading a small but experienced team of engineers and project management experts would provide the IG’s office with the wherewithal to actually understand the projects it was assessing.

As former Attorney General Griffin Bell said, “Trust is the coin of the realm.” Right now, neither the Congress nor the American people trust NASA to cost-effectively manage NASA’s programs or even to be working on programs of greatest need to Americans, rather than the desired Next Big Program an individual administrator might want.

To reinstate that trust, NASA doesn’t just need a new administrator: it needs a new top team with a different attitude that will join the agency at the hip with the rest of the Administration while initiating and competently implementing real reforms, giving the US, and Earth, the NASA that is needed for the 21st century.