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Is NASA about to get its first female leader?

NASA's famous emblem.
NASA's famous emblem. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA may be on the verge of a big — and long overdue — inclusion milestone.

The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris may very well make history with their choice to lead the 62-year-old U.S. space agency, said Jack Burns, a professor of astrophysics and planetary science at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

"Well, this is one place where there are some pretty good rumors," Burns said on Thursday (Jan. 14) during a panel discussion at the 237th meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), which was held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic

"I think the Biden-Harris administration would very much like to name — from everything I understand here — the first woman NASA administrator, and that would be very exciting, long overdue," he said. "And some of the names that have been put forward are extremely well qualified."

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Such speculation should be taken seriously, for Burns is pretty plugged in. He has served on a number of NASA panels, and four years ago he was a member of the transition team that helped get the incoming Trump administration up to speed on NASA's tasks, needs and priorities.

And Biden has already made history with some of his other high-profile nominations. If his picks are confirmed, the Biden administration will include the first woman to lead the Treasury Department (Janet Yellen), the first female Director of National Intelligence (Avril Haines), the first African-American Secretary of Defense (Lloyd Austin), the first Native American Interior Secretary (Deb Haaland), the first Latino Secretary of Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayorkas), and the first openly LGBTQ person to hold any Cabinet post (Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation). 

Burns did not reveal any of the names being bandied about for NASA chief. But it bears mentioning that some eminently qualified women — Ellen Stofan and Pam Melroy, for example — are already working with the Biden administration, as members of the current eight-person NASA transition team.

Stofan, a planetary geologist, served as NASA's chief scientist from August 2013 to December 2016. And she has already made history as the first woman to direct the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, her current gig.

Melroy is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and former NASA astronaut with three space shuttle missions under her belt. She also served as deputy director of the Tactical Technology Office at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The other three women on the NASA transition team — climate scientist Shannon Valley, technology and policy analyst Bhavya Lal, and astrophysicist Jedidah Isler — are also extremely accomplished.

Biden has already named his Cabinet picks, but it's unclear when he will announce his choice for NASA administrator. The current NASA chief, Jim Bridenstine, didn't come aboard until about 18 months into the Trump presidency. The space community doesn't want another such delay, Burns said, and history suggests it will indeed be different this time. (Bridenstine has said he won't continue in the role of NASA chief, even if Biden asks him to.)

"I think if you look at the past, generally speaking or so, by summer, we should likely have a nominee," he said.

NASA is rarely at the top of any incoming president's priority list, Burns stressed. And space science and exploration are likely to be on the back burner for Biden and Harris, given the situation that will face them on day one of their administration.

"In terms of priorities, obviously: COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID," Mike Holland, vice chancellor for science policy and research strategy at the University of Pittsburgh, said during Thursday's panel at the AAS meeting.

"There's a lot of work to do in rebuilding and rethinking and redesigning the public health slash preparedness part of the R&D [research and development] budget," Holland said. "Obviously, energy technology, climate science — lots of work to be done there, in rebuilding portfolios that the outgoing administration was very focused on trying to attack, undermine, disassemble. So that's going to be an absolute priority in the R&D budget."

Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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Mike Wall
SPACE.COM SENIOR SPACE WRITER — Michael has been writing for Space.com since 2010. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.