WASHINGTON — With Lori Garver’s plans to leave NASA come Sept. 6 now official, speculation naturally turns to who — if anybody — will replace her as NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s deputy.
And since we’re speculating, we might as well take a moment to talk about why Garver is stepping down now.
It’s no secret that Garver, a Michigan native who double majored in political economy and skiing at Colorado College, is a political junkie who originally threw in with Hillary Clinton before joining Team Obama after he won the 2008 Democratic party’s presidential primary.
With Clinton the clear front runner for the 2016 contest, going to work for the Air Line Pilots Association — a 51,000-member pilots union with 320 employees and a $106 million budget — would allow Garver to rebuild her bank account and broaden her base of support should she choose to join Clinton’s campaign a few years down the road. So it’s quite possible the U.S. space community has not seen the last of Garver.
But back to her replacement.
First, it’s worth noting that the White House could simply chose to leave Bolden without a deputy. After all, NASA’s longest-serving administrator, Daniel S. Goldin, never had one (although he did have Lori as a close adviser and associate administrator for policy and plans — a position that no longer exists on the NASA org chart).
If the White House does decide to nominate someone for the post, don’t expect it to happen soon. Vetting candidates could easily take 2-3 months. And given the Senate’s track record, confirmation could take another 2-3 months. In the meantime, Bolden could always name NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot — the agency’s No. 3 in command and top-ranking career civil servant — the agency’s acting deputy. Or moved fellow astronaut Bob Cabana up from Kennedy Space Center.
So who could or should be in the running? Here’s my first blush analysis, some of it a bit tongue in cheek. Make your case in comments section below.
1. Eileen Collins
Given President Obama’s second-term tendency to appoint women to top administration posts, retired female astronauts likely will get a close look. Former astronaut Kathryn Sullivan is out since Obama already nominated her last week to become the permanent head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So why not Eileen Collins, the retired Air Force colonel and NASA astronaut who in 1999 became the first female commander of a space shuttle mission?
Collins also commanded the shuttle’s post-Columbia return-to-flight mission in July 2005, leaving the agency the following spring “to pursue private interests, including service as a board member of [the United States Air Force Association],” according to Wikipedia. So she’s probably available and Bolden likes astronauts.
Bottom line: a plausible pick.
2. Kay Bailey Hutchison
The former U.S. senator from Texas has several things going for her: she likes Bolden, she knows a lot about NASA and she knows how to work with Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) — the three senior lawmakers who set the space agenda in the Senate.
As Republican, Hutchison would help restore NASA’s stature as a nonpartisan agency.
Bottom line: Never going to happen, but fun to think about.
3. Anousheh Ansari
The charismatic Iranian-American engineer and tech executive not only paid her own way to the international space station — something Garver sought to do through a sponsorship-play capitalizing on her soccer mom cred — she’s also given gobs of money to the X Prize Foundation.
The $10 million Ansari X Prize, awarded to the Paul Allen-backed SpaceShipOne team, set the stage for Virgin Galactic and a handful of competitors preparing to fly paying passengers into suborbital space.
Bottom line: She’s got better things to do with her time.
4. Jean Toal Eisen
This senior Senate staffer has a solid space policy background, having worked for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee for 12 years and spent a year at the U.S. Commerce Department as deputy director for the Office of Policy and Strategy before going to work for Mikulski on NASA appropriations.
Toal Eisen is also a true-blue Democrat who came to Washington as a research assistant to the late Sen. Fritz Hollings, the then-senior senator from South Carolina, where her mother is chief justice of the state supreme court.
Bottom line: With the right friends in the right places — her old boss, Bill Nelson, would likely preside over her confirmation hearing — Toal Eisen would glide through the Senate. But does she have the right skill set for the job?
5. Richard DalBello
Although he has not formally announced that he will be stepping down as vice president of legal and government affairs at Intelsat General Corp., it’s a poorly kept secret in Washington space circles that DalBello has been tapped to fill a vacancy at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).
What’s left some people scratching their heads is why DalBello would leave a cushy private sector job to take a low profile post he held from 1993 to 1997 under then-President Bill Clinton.
One possible explanation is that he’s not — the OSTP space and aeronautics post will be just a temporary gig that allows DalBello to ride herd on NASA while the nomination and confirmation process runs its natural course.
Could DalBello do the job, assuming he wants to? Her certainly has the right qualifications, he knows everybody there is to know in space and he has no obvious interest conflicts since he has spent the last eight years working for Intelsat General, a satellite services firm not among NASA’s stable of contractors.
Bottom line: Makes too much sense not to be a real possibility.
What do you think?