Profile: Shana Dale, NASA Deputy Administrator

Fresh out of law school, Shana Dale applied for a legal position at NASA. She didn’t get the job. This past November — a decade and a half after NASA turned her down — Dale was sworn in as the agency’s deputy administrator, becoming the first woman to hold such a senior position at NASA.

Dale joked during her swearing in ceremony that she could finally put NASA on her resume.

Most of Dale’s career has been spent in Washington. After a brief stint in private practice, she put her law degree to work on Capitol Hill, first as the House Science Committee’s Republican counsel and later as staff director of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee. During her final five years on the Science Committee, Dale and her staff cranked out landmark commercial space legislation and the first NASA authorization bill to reach the president’s desk since 1992.

In 2000, Dale left her House colleagues to serve as assistant vice chancellor for federal relations for the University of Texas system, a job that kept her in Washington and never far from the halls of Congress. After George W. Bush was elected president that same year, Dale joined the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as chief of staff and general counsel and later became the office’s deputy director for homeland and national security.

Dale’s knowledge of the inner workings of government should come in handy as she helps NASA navigate the political obstacles to implementing the president’s Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020.

Dale spoke recently with Space News staff writer Brian Berger.

What is your role at NASA?

The priority is for me to come in and help NASA Administrator Mike Griffin implement the vision and strive for a healthy balance between the programs. What Mike was really seeking was comple mentary skill sets among the three of us at the top of the agency. Mike obviously brings a wealth of technical expertise and leadership experience to the job. NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden also brings a lot of technical expertise as well as long-term agency experience within NASA. What I bring to the table is agency management experience, political skills, policymaking experience and a really comprehensive knowledge of NASA and the aerospace industry from the time I spent working on these issues on Capitol Hill.

Does your arrival mean Griffin will be spending less time dealing with Congress?

I can’t say at this point that it will have an impact on how many visits Mike Griffin makes to the Hill. What I can tell you is that I am going to be very involved. My responsibilities include overseeing NASA’s functional offices: general counsel; the chief financial officer; the chief information officer ; institutions and management; and strategic communication, which includes the press operations, international relations and legislative affairs. So I will have a lot of interaction with Capitol Hill. It’s where I come from. That’s an easy relationship for me.

What is your assessment of NASA’s relationship with Congress today?

My impression is that Mike Griffin has worked really hard and established a great working relationship with the members on the Hill. He’s a very straightforward, very blunt person. The lawmakers he is dealing with really appreciate the level of honesty and directness they are getting in terms of insight into what is going on at NASA. So I feel like he has built up a really good, trusting relationship. They seem to have a lot of respect for him not only for his technical expertise but also for his straightforwardness.

What political challenges lie ahead for NASA and the vision?

Sustaining the level of support this program currently enjoys over many congresses and many presidential administrations. We also need to make sure that the American public feels the same excitement for the vision that we feel here within the aerospace community. One of the things I was concerned about when I was on Capitol Hill was the absence of a long-range plan and long-term vision for the space program. The Vision for Space Exploration really gives a uniform theme to the agency that extends decades into the future.

How do you sell the vision to lawmakers who see it as a threat to science and aeronautics programs?

That will be an ongoing process. I really think it’s important to understand that the vision is a package deal with all of the elements flowing together. Terminating the space shuttle in 2010 is part of having a smooth transition to the Crew Exploration Vehicle, for example. Knowing that we are planning this transition helps maintain support for the vision on the Hill.

Congress denied NASA’s last request to cut aeronautics spending. Do you expect continued opposition?

My impression is that the Hill and the other places are very excited about the direction of the aeronautics program. We have a new associate administrator for aeronautics, Lisa Porter, who is working with us to develop a new vision for aeronautics that will take the agency back to doing the kind of fundamental research and development that NASA is particularly good at. NASA will also be cooperating with the Federal Aviation Administration and other agencies in planning next-generation air transportation systems critically important to the United States. I think what you are seeing on Capitol Hill is a realization that there is definitely a lot of work under way to really focus what is being done in the aeronautics program and take it in a positive direction. The scientists and engineers at our aeronautics centers are really excited about the new direction, which they are helping formulate.

Do you think aeronautics boosters will be as excited about the budget cuts that lie ahead?

Our 2007 budget will not be released until February, so I cannot comment.

Griffin’s predecessor was well known for his close working relationship with Vice President Richard Cheney. Given your background, should we expect NASA to begin working more closely with the Office of Science and Technology Policy?

Sean O’Keefe had his own unique way of dealing with the White House. He had a good working relationship with the White House and we have a good working relationship with the White House. They are probably different. That is just the normal course of business.

How is Griffin’s approach different from O’Keefe’s?

Suffice it to say that they are different, but both effective. That is the extent of my comment on that.

Can anything short of a major cash infusion keep the shuttle program’s $3 billion to $5 billion budget shortfall from swamping the exploration effort?

Anything that relates to the budget is all wrapped up in the 2007 budget discussions so I really cannot comment.

Congress recently passed a NASA authorization bill for only the second time since 1992. Do NASA authorization bills even matter?

As someone who has worked both sides of an authorization bill, I can say that this one is important due to the strong bipartisan endorsement of the President’s Vision for Space Exploration. This support is critical in helping NASA focus on meeting the demands of the new exploration mission while striking a proper balance with its other mission objectives, particularly in science and aeronautics.

What were NASA’s big accomplishments for 2005?

Developing the exploration architecture was a huge accomplishment. We can now move forward expeditiously to implement the president’s vision. On the political side, it was developing a strong working relationship with all of NASA’s stakeholders.

How would you describe your working style?

I want people to be very candid with me. I like to get all thoughts and views out on the table. I also believe management is a two-way street. The things that I expect of people they can expect of me, including a good work ethic and high standard of professionalism. I also tend to be very candid.