NASA is a space ship without a captain, on this 104th day of the Obama administration.  The temporary stand-in, long-time civil servant Christopher Scolese, has plenty of experience and is highly regarded but is having to make long-term strategic planning decisions absent a confirmed Administrator since January 20 when Michael Griffin was relieved of his post.  Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren recently expressed his hope that the President will name someone soon, and said we need to restore rightful attention and funding to Earth Sciences and climate change research—programs he says were “decimated” under the Bush administration.  We agree with Holdren. 

by Anne Polansky
In his first interview with the Associated Press since being confirmed, John Holdren in late April told AP Science writer Seth Borenstein that it’s time to “rebalance NASA’s programs so that we have in space exploration, a suitable mix of manned activities and robotic activities.” 

NASA’s plans to colonize the moon are already being questioned in light of budget constraints; acting NASA head Scolese recently indicated the agency may scale back plans for a permanent lunar outpost.  The agency will also need to reexamine human space flight, which is much more expensive (and risky!) than unmanned exploration.  Hopefully, a new NASA administrator will not share Griffin’s wacky view that if we don’t get there first, other planets might be forced to miss out on shopping malls, sports bars, hot dogs, and apple pie:   

Griffin’s NASA vision: Colonize outer space with American cultural values (June 11, 2007)

A new NASA administrator will be required as well to make choices about the need to look down on our own planet Earth—to better understand the increasingly disrupted climate system—versus an outward orientation to space.  This point was echoed recently in the New York Times.  We are not arguing it’s either/or—rather, the challenge is in finding the right balance, reflecting the need to ramp up Earth Science and sharpen a “Mission to Planet Earth” focus in light of the urgent challenge of global climatic disruption. We expressed this view in an earlier post, just before President Obama took office: 

Replace Michael Griffin with a reality-based NASA leader who puts Earth Science first

We also hope the next administrator will be further advanced in his or her thinking regarding climate change.  Some of us are still shaking our heads at the ill-considered comments Griffin made in late May 2007: 

NASA Administrator Griffin “not sure” global warming is a problem or long-term concern

Hansen shoots back on NASA head Griffin’s “incredibly ignorant and arrogant statement”

As one of the primary agencies in the US Global Change Research Program, NASA has much work to do if we are going to maintain the scientific underpinnings essential for informing policy going forward.  This imperative grew even stronger with the recent tragic setback of losing the Orbiting Carbon Observatory in a launch failure (see Wikipedia entry).  The time is now to get the wandering spaceship back on track, fully captained and guided with the best interests of society in mind.