Earth Scientist Emerges as Possible Replacement for NASA Chief
Michael Griffin, 11th Administrator of NASA, at his Senate confirmation hearing on April 12, 2005.
Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

WASHINGTON - Despite a last-ditch campaign by some supporters to keep NASA Administrator Mike Griffin on the job, the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama is now vetting a handful of replacement candidates, among them scientist Charles Kennel, who previously ran the agency?s Earth science division, according to sources familiar with the situation.

A decision is expected next week, possibly sooner, and sources with ties to Obama?s NASA transition team said Griffin is not expected to be retained.

Griffin, for his part, said he submitted his letter of resignation in December, along with all political appointees of the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush. In a Jan. 8 e-mail, Griffin said he had not yet been asked to stay.

?There?s no discussion unless the new team wants to have one. In the case of NASA, it is hard to imagine that the president-elect has time to deal with succession anytime prior to [Jan. 20], so in all likelihood the clock ticks over and I am gone,? he said.

Nick Shapiro, spokesman for the Obama transition team, declined to comment.

Griffin had said in recent weeks that he would like to stay on to finish work he had started on building NASA?s next generation of vehicles aimed at sending humans to the Moon and beyond.

A petition drive to keep Griffin, launched by former NASA astronaut Scott ?Doc? Horowitz and circulated to friends and colleagues by Griffin?s wife, Rebecca, left Griffin both honored and embarrassed, he said Jan. 8 in a speech at the Space Transportation Association breakfast on Capitol Hill. 

Some members of Congress, including Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee with NASA oversight, and the committee?s ranking member, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), had recommended keeping Griffin in his post, at least through inauguration.

?He?s been really a staunch advocate for NASA - the agency, scientists, engineers and administrative staff. He?s given them and our nation, I think, a sense of pride,? Hall said in introducing Griffin during the Jan. 8 breakfast.

Sources close to the NASA transition effort, meanwhile, said Obama intends to name a new NASA administrator before Inauguration Day and possibly as soon as Friday. They said Obama?s overall transition team leader, John Podesta, and his colleagues have been formally vetting NASA administrator candidates this week. One previously unreported candidate getting a close look, these sources said, is Kennel, a former NASA associate administrator for Earth science and a recent director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

Another source with ties to the NASA transition team said the Obama administration would like to pick a distinguished scientist to lead NASA, noting that Obama already has tapped Harvard University physicist John Holdren as his science adviser and Nobel laureate physicist Steven Chu to run the U.S. Department of Energy.

If the Obama administration is determined to put a scientist at NASA?s helm, that would disqualify retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander. Space News identified Bolden in November as a potential NASA administrator candidate and he has been the subject of fervent press speculation in recent days.

The source who identified Kennel as a serious contender for NASA?s top job cautioned that the Obama transition team, at least as of Thursday, had not settled on a candidate. The source said Podesta and his colleagues were vetting names submitted by Obama?s NASA transition team as well as some names of their own. The source said it was possible that when Podesta goes to Obama with a recommendation, the president-elect ?may have a name or two? to enter into the mix. Two sources said the Obama transition team has also reached out to Capitol Hill for input.

Kennel currently chairs the National Academy of Science?s Space Studies Board, which keeps a close eye on NASA programs and policies. He also served on the NASA Advisory Council from 1998 to 2006, serving as the council?s chair from 2001 to 2005. In the mid-1990s, Kennel ran NASA?s Mission to Planet Earth enterprise, the predecessor to the agency?s $1.3 billion Earth science division.

Last year, Kennel joined a group of former high-ranking U.S. government officials in calling for merging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey into an independent Earth Systems Science Agency to improve the study of the Earth's changing environment. That proposal envisioned leaving NASA?s Earth science programs intact and in place.

In addition to Kennel, candidates said by sources to still be in the running include: Alan Stern, former NASA associate administrator for science; Scott Hubbard, former director of NASA?s Ames Research Center; and Wesley Huntress, former NASA associate administrator for space science.

Bolden also is getting a closer look, sources said, if only because of the recent media attention he has received.

Bolden said during a Jan. 6 webcast organized by the Conrad Foundation that he had not been approached by the Obama administration.

?I?m incredibly honored that my name would be floated around, but those are things I haven?t been approached about yet so I can?t offer you an opinion or anything,? Bolden said.