Enormous challenges confront U.S. President-elect BarackObama as he prepares to take office Jan. 20, the most obvious ones being shooting wars on two fronts, a badly battered
and global economy and severe fiscal pressures that are sure to grow worse. Given all this, plus the usual demands associated with transition, many would not expect space to command a place on the immediate agenda of the incoming administration.

But for the U.S. civil space program, the times are no less extraordinary than they are for the United States as a whole: NASA faces its own budgetary crisis as it tries to execute a smooth and safe transition from the space shuttle – the nation’s sole means of launching astronauts for the past 27 years – to a new system now in development. At the same time, the agency is struggling to maintain vitality in its astronomy, robotic planetary exploration, Earth science and aeronautics programs.

Under current plans and budget projections, there will be a five-year gap between the shuttle’s retirement, now scheduled for 2010, and the debut of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher in 2015. This assumes no major technical hiccups or delays on either effort, and that the agency isn’t hit with unanticipated bills elsewhere – repairing storm damage at a major center, for example – during the next several years. Neither scenario is likely, if recent history is a guide.

Both President
-elect Obama, a Democratic senator from
, and his now-defeated Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain of
, were made aware of NASA’s funding predicament during the campaign; in the final weeks, as they hustled for votes in the critical battleground state of
, both pledged to provide an extra $2 billion for the
space agency. Sen. McCain said he would exclude NASA from the freeze he promised to impose on most nondefense spending; Sen. Obama, meanwhile, dispatched his running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) – now the vice president-elect – to Florida to reiterate a pledge to try and narrow the gap between the shuttle’s retirement and the debut of its replacement system.

Many things get said in the heat of a political campaign, especially when a relatively small but focused interest group is viewed as possibly in position to make the difference between winning and losing. But now that Sen. Obama has secured the presidency, carrying
in the process, he has a promise to keep; one that was made and repeated with full knowledge of the budgetary and economic woes the country will face for the foreseeable future.

Sen. Obama’s campaign was not specific about whether the $2 billion would be a one-shot deal or an annual increase over the projections of the outgoing administration of President George W. Bush. It is not realistic to expect the latter, but with Congress firmly in the hands of his party come Jan. 20, President-elect Obama is in position to make good on the former.

The funding promise aside, the biggest immediate decision before the Obama administration is its choice of a NASA administrator. The president and his advisers absolutely must get this right: NASA needs a firm and experienced hand to guide it through the critical transition from shuttle to Orion-Ares 1; someone who is not afraid to make hard choices or ruffle a few feathers to get the job done.

This is why Sen. Obama should strongly consider asking current NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to stay on the job. In addition to his unassailable technical credentials, Mr. Griffin has proven to be a capable manager while building strong, respect-based relationships with key players from both political parties on Capitol Hill. He has weathered controversy, such as when political appointees in NASA’s public affairs office were accused of trying to muzzle one of the agency’s top global warming experts, and stood firm in the face of relentless second-guessing of his hardware decisions for replacing the space shuttle.

Mr. Griffin is known and admired by many for his candor, even when it flies in the face of political expediency. To cite one recent example, he was vocal and up front with Congress about the need for relief from the law that bars NASA from buying space station-related goods from Russia, even when the White House would have preferred he stay silent on the matter.

Obviously it is the president’s prerogative to select the members of his government-management team, and the position of NASA administrator is no exception. But if President-elect Obama is truly committed to reinvigorating America’s space exploration program, he is going to want a NASA administrator who is willing and able to stay the course on decisions that already have been made toward that end – decisions that have stood up to engineering rigor. This person also must be willing to tell the president what he needs to hear, even if it is not what he wants to hear, a quality Sen.Obama himself has pledged to manifest in his dealings with the American public. Mr. Griffin has proven he fits the bill here.

At minimum, Mr. Griffin should be asked to stay on until a qualified replacement can be confirmed, a process likely to take several months in the best of circumstances. But President-elect Obama’s transition team also would do well to recognize and entertain the possibility that some things are better left unchanged, even if that goes against the mantra that helped get him elected.