There is a lot of hand-wringing in the space community these days about the Obama Administration’s inability to fill the corner office on the ninth floor at NASA headquarters.
The incredulous refrain among space cadets: “they picked the First Dog before they selected a NASA administrator!?”
NASA is now approaching the hundred day mark without a fully vested leader. This is not a record by any means. The longest gap between administrators lasted 225 days (9/15/1970 – 4/27/71) between the legendary Thomas O. Paine and James Fletcher.
In those days there was no acting administrator who took the reins. That is not the case right now. A 22-year highly-regarded NASA veteran – Chris Scolese – is running the show right now. And by all accounts he is doing as good a job as a leader without portfolio can do.
Of course “can do” is what this agency is all about, right?
But implicit in all the fretting among the Space Cadet Corps is the idea that there are big decisions in the Administrator’s inbox – just waiting to be made. And time is a wastin’ as they say.
Congress told NASA to protect the option to keep the space shuttle fleet flying beyond the end of 2010 – when the remaining orbiters will be shipped to museums. NASA’s top management tier has already said they will stop doing that – and start ordering up the mothballs for the shuttles.
Would that have played out any differently if there was a new boss at NASA? I highly doubt it. Keeping the shuttle fleet flying is a $3 billion per year proposition. No one wants to give NASA the extra money (although measured against some of these big bailouts, it now seems like a pittance).
But perhaps more to the point: the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) said the shuttles could not be safely flown any longer. What Member of Congress would like to volunteer to be the person who insists the shuttles keep flying – only to see a third shuttle disaster? Cricket…cricket.
So the shuttle decision is a done deal. No administrator needed for that – as the last NASA boss set all of this in motion during his tenure.
The other big – and related – issue that puts the Space Cadets into a retrograde orbit is the so called “gap”. That is the period of time between the last shuttle flight and the first launch of the vehicle (collectively called “Constellation”) that is designed to carry American astronauts back to the moon.
As it stands now, the first flight of the Ares I rocket is set for 2015. So if all goes according to schedule, there will be a five year period where the US will not have a vehicle capable of carrying people into the void. Our stop gap solution: flag some Russian Soyuz taxis. No one seems to like that idea. But the decision was made when then President Bush laid out his Vision (thing) for space Exploration in January of 2004.
There was never enough money in that scheme to fly the shuttle and build its successor concurrently.
And today, there is very little anyone can do to squeeze the gap. If you threw another $1.9 billion at Constellation, you might be able to launch six months sooner.
So that decision is also pretty well baked.
The real issue for NASA is this: without an Administrator, it loses clout inside the Beltway – where power, status, rank and title mean much more than boring things like serving the taxpayers. Without a boss, NASA doesn’t have a seat at the table. Over time, this could hurt the agency, but in this short period, likely not.
In short, you could put a dog in the 9th floor corner office at 3rd and E Street, SW and things would not be much different – which is to say, not very pretty.
Hey how about throwing Bo’s collar into the ring?
NEXT: Why it is taking so long