It has been more than two months since Mike Griffin departed as NASA administrator, having effectively been dismissed by incoming U.S. President Barack Obama, and the
space agency is still without a permanent leader or nominee for the post. NASA is of course in the same boat as a slew of federal agencies where scores of key positions remain unfilled, partly because of what some say is an overly rigorous screening process that eliminates anyone carrying the slightest whiff of potential conflict. But for NASA, which is today facing decisions that will shape its future in human spaceflight, the situation is increasingly problematic, not to mention disappointing.

The disappointment stems from the fact that NASA commanded unprecedented attention from both presidential candidates during last year’s campaign, largely for the same reason the agency needs a permanent leader in place sooner rather than later. To summarize, NASA is in the midst of its transition from the space shuttle – its human spaceflight system for nearly three decades – to a next-generation system. Within that context, several decisions must be made, among them: Whether to conduct additional space shuttle flights beyond the minimum needed to complete the international space station; whether to continue U.S. participation in the space station beyond 2015; and how best to spend $400 million provided for NASA’s exploration effort in the recently passed economic stimulus package. In making the latter decision, it would help if NASA had some sense as to whether its current space shuttle replacement plan, a legacy of Mr. Griffin and the previous administration that relies heavily on shuttle-derived hardware, will be embraced by President Obama.

For a stretch in January, it appeared that the administration had its candidate – retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, who served as an adviser to the campaign – and that an announcement might even precede President Obama’s Jan. 20 inauguration. While Mr. Gration’s emergence as the front-runner raised some eyebrows – his civil space experience consists of a yearlong stint at NASA as a White House fellow in 1982 – the fact that it happened so quickly suggested that NASA indeed was high on the administration’s priority list.

But Mr. Gration ran into opposition on Capitol Hill and the president meanwhile stumbled on other high-profile personnel choices, notably the abortive nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Tom Daschle to serve as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mr. Gration recently was assigned a diplomatic post in the Obama administration.

Lawmakers also apparently balked at another, more qualified candidate: Steve Isakowitz, an aerospace engineer and budget analyst who once had the NASA account at the White House Office of Management and Budget and later served as deputy associate administrator of the agency’s exploration systems office. Mr. Isakowitz was reappointed to his most recent job, comptroller of the U.S. Department of Energy, late March 20, just as a bipartisan group of respected civil space advocates was attempting to rally support for his NASA candidacy.

With Mssrs. Gration and Isakowitz now officially out of the running, the picture has gotten murky, raising fears that, given the length of the candidate vetting process combined with the requirement for Senate confirmation, NASA could be without a permanent administrator well into the second quarter of 2009.

Michael Coats, director of NASA’s
, said recently that the agency’s acting administrator, Chris Scolese, is reluctant to make what likely would be seen as policy decisions in the absence of a clear policy direction from the Obama administration. Moreover, Mr. Coats noted, it is tough to run an agency with key positions like deputy administrator also unfilled.

President Obama obviously has to take into consideration the wishes of key lawmakers – people like Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) – whose support will be crucial to anything the NASA administrator tries to accomplish in the coming months and years. At the same time, lawmakers must recognize that it is the president’s prerogative to choose members of his own administration so long as they are qualified.

Granted, President Obama has a lot on his plate, but he needs to make filling the NASA administrator’s post a priority; there are qualified candidates out there. He also must be willing to put some political muscle behind his choice. Lawmakers, meanwhile, need to be less prescriptive and more willing to compromise. The current impasse is doing nobody any good, least of all NASA.