Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Who’s the boss?

Houston Chronicle adds voice to call
for Obama to name NASA Administrator

As President Barack Obama approaches a much ballyhooed hundred days in office tomorrow, a puzzling leadership hole remains at the top of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. With crucial decisions looming on the phaseout of the space shuttle and a subsequent lengthy inability by the U.S. to rocket astronauts into orbit, Obama has yet to select a replacement for former NASA administrator Michael Griffin.

The lack of presidential action is fueling suspicions by NASA supporters that the new administration is assigning a low priority to future manned exploration of the moon and Mars.

A congressional mandate to delay action on the shuttle’s future expires on Thursday. At that point NASA officials will be free to start the phase-out of the fleet if they so choose. Presidential science adviser John Holdren has said, however, that no decisions will be made on the fate of the shuttle and the development of a replacement vehicle until a new administrator is in place. The U.S. is already facing at least a five-year window in which it will be dependent on Russian vehicles to transport Americans to the International Space Station.

According to NASA’s deputy space shuttle program manager, LeRoy Cain, the longer the agency goes without making those key decisions, the more expensive it will be to continue shuttle operations through the previous planned termination date in 2010.

Former director Griffin recently criticized Obama for not living up to his campaign promise for a robust manned space program. He accused the administration of planning deep cuts in NASA’s budget, a charge denied by a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget. The administration will present a detailed plan for NASA’s proposed $18.7 billion budget to Congress next month.

As NASA prepares to launch a long-planned shuttle mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, its lack of a permanent administrator is inexplicable and troubling. If President Obama is serious about his commitment to the future of the American space program, he needs to fill that vacuum without further delay.

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