Skip to main content

Earth Scientist Emerges as Possible Replacement for NASA Chief

Former NASA Chief Says Ares I Rocket Two Times Safer
Michael Griffin, 11th Administrator of NASA, at his Senate confirmation hearing on April 12, 2005.
(Image: © NASA/Renee Bouchard)

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

A decisionis expected next week, possibly sooner, and sources with ties to Obama?s NASAtransition team said Griffin is notexpected to be retained.

Griffin,for his part, said he submitted his letter of resignation in December, alongwith all political appointees of the outgoing administration of PresidentGeorge W. Bush. In a Jan. 8 e-mail, Griffin said he had not yet been asked tostay.

?There?s nodiscussion unless the new team wants to have one. In the case of NASA, it ishard to imagine that the president-elect has time to deal with successionanytime prior to [Jan. 20], so in all likelihood the clock ticks over and I amgone,? he said.

NickShapiro, spokesman for the Obama transition team, declined to comment.

Griffin hadsaid in recent weeks that he would like to stay on to finish work he hadstarted on building NASA?snext generation of vehicles aimed at sending humans to the Moon and beyond.

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

Somemembers of Congress, including Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of theHouse Science and Technology Committee with NASA oversight, and the committee?sranking member, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), had recommended keeping Griffin inhis post, at least through inauguration.

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

Sourcesclose to the NASA transition effort, meanwhile, said Obama intends to name anew NASA administrator before Inauguration Day and possibly as soon as Friday.They said Obama?s overall transition team leader, John Podesta, and hiscolleagues 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 recentdirector of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University ofCalifornia San Diego.

Anothersource with ties to the NASAtransition team said the Obama administration would like to pick adistinguished scientist to lead NASA, noting that Obama already has tappedHarvard University physicist John Holdren as his science adviser and Nobellaureate physicist Steven Chu to run the U.S. Department of Energy.

If theObama administration is determined to put a scientist at NASA?s helm, thatwould disqualify retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, a formerspace shuttle commander. Space News identified Bolden in November as apotential NASA administrator candidate and he has been the subject of ferventpress speculation in recent days.

The sourcewho identified Kennel as a serious contender for NASA?s top job cautioned thatthe Obama transition team, at least as of Thursday, had not settled on acandidate. The source said Podesta and his colleagues were vetting namessubmitted 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 arecommendation, the president-elect ?may have a name or two? to enter into themix. Two sources said the Obama transition team has also reached out to CapitolHill for input.

Kennelcurrently chairs the National Academy of Science?s Space Studies Board, whichkeeps a close eye on NASA programs and policies. He also served on the NASAAdvisory Council from 1998 to 2006, serving as the council?s chair from 2001 to2005. 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 incalling for merging the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and theU.S. Geological Survey into an independent Earth Systems Science Agency toimprove the study of the Earth's changing environment. That proposal envisionedleaving NASA?s Earth science programs intact and in place.

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

Bolden alsois getting a closer look, sources said, if only because of the recent mediaattention he has received.

Bolden saidduring a Jan. 6 webcast organized by the Conrad Foundation that he had not beenapproached by the Obama administration.

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

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.