The other day, I spoke with Ed Weiler, the former NASA associate administrator for science. He has only been gone for two weeks, but the manager of the $5 billion science mission directorate is already being missed — and NASA is working to find his replacement, with multiple people gathering and vetting multiple shortlists. Who will it be? Weiler wouldn’t say who was on the personal shortlist he passed up to Administrator Charles Bolden, but he did say that he hoped his successor would have three fundamental qualities: rock-solid scientific credentials, familiarity with the ways of Washington DC, and experience as a manager. That narrows the list considerably. And then you have to ask: who would be willing to take the job in such dismal economic times?
But in the spirit of a little rumor-mongering, or perhaps as a service to NASA’s search committee, I have put together a list of people who just might have the right stuff for the job. It’s based on conversations with dozens of scientists, along with current and former NASA officials. It is by no means exhaustive. But these are some of the names that crop up, in alphabetical order:
Mark Abbott. Abbott is dean of the college of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State University, and has toyed with coming to Washington before. A pioneer in oceanographic remote sensing, he is already a sitting member of the National Science Board, which governs the National Science Foundation.
Waleed Abdalati. Abdalati is NASA’s current chief scientist and the science advisor to Bolden, a position not to be confused with Weiler’s, which is more about management. By all appearances, he is happy with his job. But several people think Abdalati, an Earth scientist who specializes in polar science, would be a fine associate administrator.
Dan Baker. Baker is the director of University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, one of the few academic shops capable of turning out flight hardware. A space physicist who has spent time at several NASA centres in his career, Baker has also paid his dues in Washington on many science policy committees.
John Grunsfeld. The deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, Grunsfeld is the rare astronomer who has seen space up close without the help of a telescope: he was an astronaut on three of the servicing missions for the Hubble Space Telescope. As a former chief scientist, he knows NASA headquarters well. Would it be helpful to have someone to help steer Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, to completion?
Colleen Hartman. NASA’s assistant associate administrator in the science directorate, Hartman is the only internal candidate on this list at a time when many say NASA needs to bring in someone from the outside. Moreover, as a longtime civil servant in Washington, her credentials as a scientist are not as well known. But she has been a steady presence at the agency, and few would question her competence.
David McComas. The PI for IBEX, a heliophysics mission, McComas is an accomplished scientist who is also the assistant vice-president for space science and engineering at the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI). Of course, many remember another ambitious PI from SWRI who led the science directorate for a little while.
Berrien Moore. The former head of the Princeton, New Jersey-based think tank Climate Central, Moore left in 2010 to take up a job at Oklahoma University as its dean for atmospheric and geographic sciences. As the co-chair of the Earth science community’s first decadal survey in 2007, he knows Washington well. But would such a prominent voice on climate change be a liability in dealing with a Congress in which a majority takes a dim view of climate science?
Steve Squyres. The famed PI for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity has impeccable scientific credentials. His resume was burnished further by his leadership of the planetary science decadal survey in 2011, and last month he became chair of NASA’s Advisory Council. But Squyres always promised his family he wouldn’t lead another mission. Would leading the science mission directorate in Washington count?
Maria Zuber. Last alphabetically, Zuber, the PI for the moon mission GRAIL and a department chair at MIT, was first on several people’s lists. But I’m told that she won’t be willing to relinquish the chance to lead her mission, which goes into its prime data gathering phase on January 1, 2012.