Interim NASA Chief Takes Charge Until Obama Settles on Successor
Michael Griffin, 11th Administrator of NASA, at his Senate confirmation hearing on April 12, 2005.
Credit: NASA/Renee Bouchard

WASHINGTON - Mike Griffin gave his last speech as NASA administrator to his staff before departing Washington on a ski vacation on Jan. 16, leaving Associate Administrator Chris Scolese to run the agency until U.S. President Barack Obama settles on a successor.

Griffin's departure and the resignation of his deputy, Shana Dale, left Scolese as the top ranking official at NASA. Outgoing President George W. Bush issued an executive order Jan. 16 making the 22-year NASA veteran's position as acting administrator official.

Griffin's parting words were marked by personal thanks to managers and staff he had led during nearly four years as NASA chief. He said he was heartened that staff members continued to work with him even as it became increasingly clear during the past two months that Obama would not ask him to stay on the job despite Griffin's desire to do so

"I'm well aware that as a political appointee it's very, very easy for the career staff to adopt what I call the belief in the hereafter - I'll be here after he's gone. And when that happens the agency can't get anything done because you're at odds. And that by and large didn't happen in my four years here and I'm grateful to you," Griffin said.

Like thousands of other Bush appointees, Griffin submitted his resignation effective Jan. 20, when Bush officially left office.

While Obama had not named a successor before Griffin's last official day on the job, sources said the leading candidate was retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, a decorated fighter pilot and close adviser to Obama during the campaign. Gration helped write the seven-page space policy paper the Obama campaign released in August supporting Bush's goal of sending humans to the Moon by 2020 and calling for narrowing the time gap between the planned 2010 retirement of the space shuttle and the first flight of its successor system, now scheduled for 2015, sources said. The paper stood out as the most comprehensive NASA policy statement released by a major presidential candidate in recent history.

Gration held senior policy positions in the military prior to his 2006 retirement from the Air Force but lacks space-related experience aside from a one-year stint in 1982 as a White House Fellow working for NASA's deputy administrator at the time, Hans Mark. 

Sources had said an announcement of Gration's nomination could come as soon as Jan. 14. However, a potential roadblock emerged on Capitol Hill that day when U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) warned against placing someone without NASA experience in the job. Nelson, who chairs a key NASA oversight panel, had previously endorsed retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden, a former astronaut who co-piloted Nelson's 1986 space shuttle mission, for the post. 

Bolden said Jan. 16 he had not been contacted by anyone representing Obama to discuss the administrator post.

"I'm honored just to have my name out there," Bolden said. "I have resisted the temptation to respond to questions about what I would or wouldn't do because that would be presumptuous."

Nelson, asked to comment on the prospect of Gration leading the space agency, referred to the tenure of former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, who had no direct space experience before moving to NASA from the White House Office of Management and Budget in late 2001.

"I think President Bush made a mistake when he appointed someone without NASA experience in Sean O'Keefe to head the agency. I hope President Obama's pick will have that kind of [NASA] background," Nelson said Jan. 14 through his spokesman, Dan McLaughlin.

Nelson added in a Jan. 16 statement that he hoped Obama would select someone with experience similar to Griffin, an engineer with three decades of experience in space and other high-technology jobs.

"Mike Griffin is a good man and was a good administrator," Nelson said. "I am hopeful that the administration's selection to replace him has similar experience and knowledge of the space program as Mike does."

John Logsdon, a space policy expert with the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum here, said Gration's lack of space experience should not disqualify him for the job. "There are lots of NASA administrators who have come from other areas without a background in space," he said. "You want a guy who is a leader and can manage a large organization."

Those former administrators include the second and third NASA chiefs, James Webb and Tom Paine, respectively. Webb was a lawyer who served in the Marine Corps during World War II and held several positions in Washington, including undersecretary of the State Department and White House budget director, before becoming NASA chief. Paine, an engineer by training, replaced Webb after a career as a laboratory researcher and manager who had served as a U.S. Navy submarine officer in World War II.

Gration, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, flew 274 missions over Iraq during and after the first Gulf War, according to the Air Force's Web site. He told attendees of the Democratic National Convention in August that he met then-Sen. Obama in 2005 while serving as director of strategy, plans and policy at U.S. European Command.

"That's when I met a leader unlike any I had met before," he said as he led a retired generals' tribute at the convention. "He asked tough questions, and he didn't settle for easy answers. It was this same way of thinking that led him to get it right when he opposed the [current] war in Iraq, when he warned of its consequences. That's the judgment of a leader."

Gration accompanied Obama on a five-nation, 15-day tour of Africa in 2006. He went on to campaign for Obama alongside former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff, as part of Obama's national security policy working group. He also served on Obama's transition team for the U.S. Defense Department.

The son of missionary parents, Gration spent part of his childhood in the Congo and speaks Swahili fluently, according to a Newsweek article published in August 2007. He joined the Air Force in 1974 through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. He earned a master's degree in national security studies from Georgetown University in Washington in 1988.