By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 15, 2009
A highly decorated fighter pilot, close to President-elect Barack Obama but almost completely unknown to the space community, has emerged as the top candidate to run NASA, three sources close to the Obama transition team said yesterday.
Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration traveled through Africa with Obama in 2006 and served as a military adviser to him during the campaign. He spoke at the Democratic National Convention, recalling his early life as the son of missionaries in Congo. He said of his trip to Africa with Obama, "In the shadow of Nelson Mandela's prison cell, I saw a leader with the understanding to build new bridges over old divides."
Sources said the selection is not a done deal, but a formal announcement could precede Obama's inauguration. Gration, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, could not be reached for comment. His possible nomination was reported Tuesday night on the Web sites NASA Watch and Space.com.
"He's not at all known to members of the space community," space industry analyst John Logsdon said.
Gration may not know a lot about the space program, but he understands high-risk operations. He flew 274 missions over Iraq during and after the Persian Gulf War. He was in command of a unit at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia when terrorists struck in 1996. He was on duty at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.
Gration would probably be the first NASA administrator who speaks Swahili, but he would not be the first person from outside the space community to lead the agency. James Webb, who shepherded the Apollo program, was a lawyer with no space experience before taking over, for example. And Gration would give NASA a closer personal connection to the White House than it has under current Administrator Michael D. Griffin.
Griffin has been a fervent advocate of an ambitious human spaceflight agenda that includes a return to the moon by the end of the next decade. Griffin has bristled at signs that the Obama transition team is open to the idea of scrapping the Ares I rocket under development by NASA and replacing it with an existing military rocket.
"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, a number of NASA employees, former employees and even Griffin's wife, Rebecca, signed a petition asking Obama to keep Griffin on the job. "I 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.
Griffin, who has run NASA since April 2005, is due to hold an "all-hands" session with NASA employees Friday in what will probably be a valedictory moment.
The incoming administration will grapple with several tough issues, including whether to extend the life of the space shuttle. The current plan is to dismantle the shuttle program after the completion of the international space station in 2010. But the shuttle's replacement will not be ready for another five years. In that period, the United States would have to hitch rides to the space station aboard Russian rockets. Extending the shuttle's life would cost $3 billion more a year, Griffin said.
The outgoing administrator emphasized that what NASA does is never easy, and that it is still mastering the art of space travel.
"This is an extremely hard thing to do. We're just learning," Griffin said. "We're 50 years into the development of spaceflight, and to be honest, we're not very good at it."
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.