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Obama May Select Highly Decorated Pilot As NASA Chief

January 15, 2009

Speculation erupted on Wednesday due to new reports that President-elect Barack Obama may be considering his new appointee to take over as NASA chief.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan “Scott” Gration is unknown to people close to NASA, but he shares a close personal relationship with incoming president Obama.

Gration accompanied Obama during a trip through Africa, about which he said: “in the shadow of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell, I saw a leader with the understanding to build new bridges over old divides.”

Although Obama has not finalized his decision, sources told the Washington Post that a formal announcement could be made before Obama’s inauguration on Jan. 20.

Although highly decorated, many analysts have raised concerns over Gration’s inexperience in space.

“He’s not at all known to members of the space community,” space industry analyst John Logsdon said.

“I think President Bush made a mistake when he appointed someone without NASA experience in Sean O’Keefe to head the agency,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which would hold confirmation hearings on the eventual nominee. “I hope President Obama’s pick will have that kind of (NASA) background.”

O’Keefe’s administration at NASA was marked by the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster and poor financial management.

Some think there is value in Obama’s possible pick of someone he has a personal relationship with.

“To me, it’s a positive signal,” said John Logsdon, former head of the space policy institute at George Washington University, who served on the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

“Obama has picked one of his close personal associates to be the head of NASA. It would make no sense for Obama to send a close associate to an agency (and) then not support the agency.”

Having grown up as the son of missionaries in the Congo, Gration may be the first NASA administrator to also speak Swahili.  After serving for 32 years, he retired from the Air Force in 2006. Over the course of his career, Gration has flown 274 missions over Iraq and was on duty at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Gration would not be the first NASA administrator to come in with no space community experience. Former administrator James Webb was a lawyer before heading the space agency.

Current NASA chief Michael Griffin has been highly outspoken in the months leading up to Obama’s inauguration. He is at odds with the incoming administration over the possible replacement of the Ares I rocket under development by NASA with an existing military rocket to cut cost and reduce development time.

“If either White House staff or Congress starts to get into the launch vehicle design business, we’re doomed. This is what NASA does,” Griffin told The Washington Post this week.

In December, Griffin was the subject of a petition called “Campaign for Mike,” which combined the efforts of friends, family, colleagues and even his wife Rebecca in hopes of asking Obama to allow Griffin to keep his job.

“And if this is inappropriate, I’m sorry,” Rebecca Griffin wrote to Obama.

In a seemingly related move, the space agency also sent copies of a new NASA book called “Leadership in Space: Selected Speeches of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, May 2005-October 2008.”

David Mould, Griffins press secretary said the move to send copies of the book was nothing out of the ordinary during the time surrounding the end of a presidential term.

“A lot of people seem to like and support Mike and think he’s doing a good job,” said Mould.

Griffin himself also sent a letter to Obama to voice his gratitude.

“I am deeply grateful to you, personally, for your leadership” on the vote to allow NASA to use Russian spaceships,” Griffin wrote.

Griffin said he “felt honored and embarrassed at the same time. I really, really, really always wanted the job to be about the space program and not about me,” he said.

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