44 The Obama Presidency
Retired Fighter Pilot to Run NASA?
By Joel Achenbach
A highly decorated fighter pilot, almost completely unknown to the space community, has emerged as the top candidate to run NASA, two sources close to the Obama transition team said today.
Retired Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration is close to President-Elect Obama, having served as a military adviser to him during the campaign. Gration spoke at the Democratic National Convention. His selection is not a done deal, the sources said, but a formal announcement could be made before the inauguration. Gration's name first surfaced Tuesday night on the Web site Space.com.
What's certain is that Gration would give NASA a closer personal connection to the White House than it currently has under NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. Gration traveled with Obama on an extended senatorial trip to Africa and, despite having voted for George W. Bush in 2000, emerged a strong Obama advocate, at one point comparing him to Nelson Mandela.
"To see how Mandela saved his country by bridging racial, ethnic and in some cases cultural diversity, and turn a page from a turbulent time--I think that's sort of what the senator's doing," Gration told Newsweek in 2007.
Gration, who retired from the Air Force in 2006, may not know much about the space program, but he understands high-risk operations. His military biography states that he flew 274 missions over Iraq in the early 1990s and has more than 1,000 hours in combat and combat-related missions. 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.
Born in Africa where his parents were missionaries, Gration would likely be the first NASA administrator who speaks Swahili.
"He's not at all known to members of the space community," said space industry analyst John Logsdon. But Logsdon added that outsiders have often had success at NASA. Among them was James Webb, the fabled administrator during Apollo.
"What a difference it will make to have an Administrator who has a personal relationship with the President and will have his calls taken," opined one commenter this morning on the NASA Watch blog.
The Gration bulletin follows weeks of speculation as to the fate of Griffin and his likely replacement. One rumor held that Obama would select Charles Bolden, a retired Marine major general, but Bolden told The Post he hadn't been contacted by the Obama transition office -- and had never met Obama. More recently the name of Charles Kennel, former head of the Scripps Oceanographic Institution, made the rounds. Kennel would not comment.
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. Griffin has said consistently that he assumes his resignation will take effect at noon Jan. 20. Griffin is due to hold an "all-hands" session with NASA employees Friday in what is expected to be a valedictory moment. Griffin will then depart for a prolonged ski vacation.
Of the lobbying on his behalf, Griffin told The Post, "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."
Griffin reiterated his strong feeling that NASA, not outsiders in the White House or Congress, should make the critical technical decisions on human spaceflight.
"If either White House staff or Congress starts to get into the launch vehicle design business, we're doomed. This is what NASA does."
Posted at 3:33 PM ET on Jan 14, 2009
44 The Obama Presidency
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