From various news reports, it appears that President-elect Obama is beginning his final selection for NASA administrator. While I don’t have any specific names, I do have a few suggestions as to the qualities that the next NASA administrator should have.
Join me over the fold to see these qualities
Capable administrator – This is perhaps the most important requirement – rather than being a scientist, or an astronaut, or a list of accolades, the next NASA administrator must be capable of administrating large scale government agencies. NASA is a ménage of competing interests and missions, whose goals sometimes are in complete opposition.
Add to that the fact that NASA’s funding is always a struggle with Congress, and the public works angle that always plays a role, and it becomes obvious that NASA can be a managerial headache. Therefore, NASA must have an administrator who not only has a technical and scientific appreciation for space, but also understands the inherent political nature involved when dealing with government work at this level, and can work with other sectors, like the activist community and the media. It’s very insightful that James Webb, arguably one of the best NASA administrators, wasn’t a scientist, or engineer, but was a politician who respected science and engineering. This is not to say that a scientist or engineer can’t do this – but they need to have a history of being a good administrator, and a good understanding of how to deal not only with the complexities associated within NASA, but also those that extend beyond NASA.
Agent of Change – During the Presidential campaign, then Senator Obama's position on space evolved, and his final proposed space policy discussed a number of issues – not just climate change, or human spaceflight, but numerous important details, like working with the commercial sector, export control reform, inter-agency cooperation, developing good international rules for conduct in space, and so on. This was not just a policy designed to grab a few votes in Florida and Texas – his proposal offers a real opportunity to finally move space beyond its current inception of science, public works, and technological development, to one that allows for the average person to become involved, and to help society to grow to the point that it truly embraces all that space has to offer.
But this won’t happen with NASA in its current inception. NASA has been plagued by cost overruns, recreates existing infrastructure while ignoring new technologies, and has discouraged scientific debate. This cannot continue, and change is needed in multiple places in NASA (but particularly the human spaceflight program). Thus, the next NASA administrator needs to be someone who can work with the entrepreneurial space sector as well as the traditional space sector – someone who can work with new international partners, and new federal government partners, as well as traditional partners like ESA, JAXA, and RSA. He/She needs to be someone who will embrace new tools, like prizes and service contracts, rather than just default to traditional contractor and cost-plus contracting models. Therefore, it needs to be someone who will not just transform NASA’s rockets, but NASA itself.
Respect for Information and Transparency – NASA’s current administrator hasn’t always respected information. From his comments on global warming, to his rejection of data regarding launch vehicle options, Michael Griffin has not respected information multiple times. In addition, NASA under his watch has attempted to censor data, both relating to the issue of global warming, but also with regard to things like spaceflight architecture selection.
This is unacceptable in a NASA administrator. Given the scope and cost of the projects it deals with, the scientific nature it must have, and the political environment that it operates in, the NASA administrator must have a respect for information and transparency. This ensures the policy fits the data, rather than the data fitting the policy, and ensures that the United States is getting the world class space programs it deserves.
It could be argued that what is needed is a NASA equivalent to President-elect Barack Obama. After all, if you consider the list of criteria I’ve offered, this is exactly what we see in President-elect Obama, and we can already see what his impact will be on national policy. Something equivalent is needed in space policy.
BBQ Chicken Madness did a diary yesterday on some of the people who are in the running to be NASA administrator, and I should link to it. Also, its worth noting that we also need a new NASA inspector General