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NASA ex-science chief looks to the future

weiler.jpg The sandy-haired astronomer finally left the building. Ed Weiler, seemingly a permanent fixture at NASA headquarters, on 30 September resigned as the agency’s associate administrator for science. In a conversation with Nature, Weiler was willing to reminisce and look back on his storied career. But he was also looking ahead to a well-deserved retirement in sunny Florida. “After 33 years of putting up with Washington, it’s really nice to be outside the Beltway permanently,” he says.

Weiler began working for NASA in 1978, and was the chief scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope from 1979 to 1998, before vaulting to the associate administrator spot, the top science job at NASA headquarters, a job he ended up holding twice.

His first love was, is and will remain the Hubble Space Telescope. “I never thought Hubble would outlast me.” He sees plenty of parallels between Hubble and its successor, the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope. Most people are too young to remember how badly over budget Hubble was, he says; Hubble’s cost was pegged at $420 million in 1978, and finally launched in 1990 at a cost of $1.6 billion. “The most interesting part was the number of senior scientists who were saying we should cancel Hubble,” he says. “To me, this is deja vu all over again.”

Although an astronomer by trade, Weiler also came to love the Mars programme. He took it over in 1998, when two missions, Mars Climate Orbiter and Mars Polar Lander, were getting ready to fly — missions which both failed in 1999 within 6 months of each other. Weiler recalled the words of then-Administrator Dan Goldin. “He said, ‘Okay, you’ve got 24 hours, tell me how you’re going to fix this problem.” Weiler scrapped the existing architecture, rebuilt the programme, and ended up with five successful missions in a row. A sixth mission, the mammoth Mars Science Laboratory, is in Florida, awaiting a November launch.

But looking ahead, Weiler has worries about the Mars programme, which he says will be the biggest challenge for his successor. The Webb telescope is by comparison on far firmer footing, he says. He’s frustrated with the inability of the United States to commit to a shared architecture with the European Space Agency for joint missions planned for 2016 and 2018. Weiler worked with ESA to build a joint, shared programme, but some of the arrangements fell apart over the summer. “That was the final straw for me,” he says.

Who will be Weiler’s successor? Names abound, as NASA’s top leadership this week consider candidates. Weiler wouldn’t divulge the shortlist of internal and external candidates that he compiled before he left. But he says there are key qualities that each candidate should have: not just vast NASA experience, but also experience working with Capitol Hill and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Finally, he says, “You want to bring somebody in who is going to stay for a while and give my people some stability.”

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