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Correction to This Article
The article misstated when Barack Obama made a remark concerning NASA's manned spaceflight program and getting a "better bang for the buck." Then-Sen. Obama made the remark in May 2008.

NASA Awaits Word on Where It Is Going Next

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By Joel Achenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

NASA has a space station, three space shuttles, two moon rockets under development, a fleet of robotic space probes, dozens of satellites, tens of thousands of employees and a budget that is creeping toward $20 billion a year. What it needs is a boss.

And one more thing, maybe: a mission that satisfies the new president of the United States.

A respected civil servant, Christopher Scolese, has been serving as acting NASA administrator since the departure on Jan. 20 of Michael D. Griffin. The Obama White House has twice been on the verge of making a formal nomination for a new head of the space agency but has pulled back both times because of grumbling from members of Congress with influence over space policy.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has lobbied openly for the nomination of Marine Gen. Charles Bolden, a former astronaut, but the White House has not seemed eager to oblige the senator.

"I am frustrated, because I don't know what the delay is," Nelson said recently.

One name recently bandied about among the space blogs is that of former congressman Nick Lampson, a Democrat from Texas who lost in November. But Lampson said he has not been contacted about the position: "If they do, indeed, have a plan that might involve asking me to do something, I'd like to at least know what that is."

The White House declines to speak on the matter. NASA press officers and department heads say they do not have a clue when there will be someone new in charge. But the space community says Obama needs to nominate an administrator and a deputy administrator soon, because NASA faces tough decisions on big-ticket items -- space shuttles, moon rockets -- and needs political appointees on the ninth floor at headquarters.

NASA officials are hypersensitive to whatever the Obama administration might say about the agency's strategic direction. The president's initial budget moves seemed to affirm the status quo in a general sense, explicitly endorsing the goal of putting astronauts back on the moon circa 2020. But the budget did not say how that should be accomplished.

Then Obama fogged up the picture during a visit to Central Florida. The president said in an interview, "I think it's fair to say that there's been a sense of drift to our space program over the last several years."

That statement has puzzled many in the space community.

"What does he mean by 'adrift'?" said Scott N. Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. Pace's theory: "It's adrift until the president gets comfortable with it."

With so much uncertainty, the agency has a case of the jitters.


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