Michael J. Fox as the bright kid who drives a DeLorean into the past to set the future straight has nothing on President Bush and his choice of Mike Griffin to lead NASA. NASA needs a leader to take it from the doldrums of a faltering bureaucracy to the efficient agency that it once was, dedicated to the expansion of human knowledge and the exploration of worlds beyond Earth.

Mike Griffin is that kind of leader.

Why go “Back to the Future”? Everyone says NASA’s best days are in the past. Why? Not because the discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope aren’t astounding, not because Mars rovers don’t stir intellectual curiosity from even the most staid of observers and not because the pictures from Saturn snapped by Cassini are not awe inspiring. Rather it is because NASA itself hasn’t been able to answer “So what?”.

Dan Goldin used to complain that Americans spent more on potato chips than on space missions. So what? If the American public is more interested in potato chips and beer than in space exploration it’s not their fault — the taxpayer makes a choice on how he or she spends their bucks based on what they perceive to be return on the dollar. In the immortal words of Tom Wolfe, “no bucks no Buck Rogers,” but in this case I think it’s “no Buck Rogers no bucks.”

In 1961 NASA was given a mission. Although some disagreed with it, most Americans recognized and identified with a journey from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo program was humanity’s first attempt to prove that the cosmos could not confine people to the surface of the Earth.

In a time when confidence was lost in almost every facet of American government, when the underpinnings of the American way of life were coming unhitched, when great men in our midst were struck down by assassins bullets, NASA and the missions to the Moon represented the best that America could be and the best that humanity could be. NASA had mission, vision, courage, imagination and public support. NASA embodied honesty, courage, daring and leadership. The public knew the “So what?” of investment in space.

NASA embraced leadership, not simple fiscal management. Its leaders at different levels of management had names like Webb, Craft and Kranz. Today we can add to that list Mike Griffin, the sharpest tack I’ve ever met. He suffers fools poorly and calls a spade a spade even at the risk of his job. On the surface he can appear arrogant, but that is almost always because he is right and has thought six moves ahead of you. He knows what he knows and knows what he doesn’t. Mike’s vision for NASA dovetails well with that of President Bush but is likely to have predated this administration and all those since 1961.

Exploration is the name of his game. Science for the sake of science has its place in the national psyche and the national budget, but science must support exploration at NASA. Big science can be done on small budgets. Big exploration cannot. This is the 100th anniversary of Einstein’s magic year. In 1905 he developed Special Relativity and his Nobel Prize-winning quantum theory of the photoelectric effect. He did his work on his own as a patent clerk in the Swiss patent office. These two works of theoretical physics answered fundamental questions in physics that allowed for the development of much modern technology. They were not efforts that required the enormous influx of funds that exploration demands. However, human exploration can have enormous payoffs for economy as well as science.

Scientific exploration can benefit from physical human exploration and vice versa. It must be an iterative process of discovery and understanding. But some fundamental questions, although they may require science and technology to ask them, are not scientific at heart.

These are questions that stir the human spirit, questions mankind has asked in many forms since we understood that the heavens were places we could visit. Are we alone in the universe? Does life of any form exist beyond our tiny planet Earth? Where did we come from? Can human or Earthly life persist off this planet? Can we travel to and then thrive on other worlds?

These questions can only be answered by exploration, by taking risks, and by changing attitudes to make our space endeavors more like those of the Surveyor, Ranger, Apollo and Viking programs. This requires crewed and robotic exploration operating in synergy to achieve what neither can alone.

Should we travel to the Moon and establish a permanent presence? Should we plan a voyage to Mars and follow through with a permanent presence?

These questions can be rolled up into one. Should the United States lead the peoples of this planet forward on the most technically challenging endeavor of exploration ever undertaken? Or should we sit back and watch as the world passes us by, as we wallow in our past glory as the first real space-faring nation.

I’ve never known Mike Griffin to wallow anywhere. With the president’s blessing, I think Mike will take the reins of NASA and guide it along the path of exploration set by this administration.

It will not be an easy task nor will it be without political pitfalls. There is an ag ing shuttle fleet to deal with. There is the Reagan legacy of the international space station to undertake. There will be the special interest science supporters who all with solid reasons will argue that their missions must take precedence.

But in the end, the will of the American public should and will decide how NASA spends their tax dollars. I don’t think languishing in low Earth orbit or proving once again that Einstein was right will be their choice.

Exploration of the solar system with both robots and humans will be the guide star mission of NASA under the direction of its new administrator. So in words made famous in an earlier day, I proudly say “Good luck and Godspeed” Mike Griffin.

Pete Bythrow is a space scientist, formerly with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.