It looks like the clock is counting down on the tenure of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.
While Griffin was speaking to an industry group today, rumors swirled through the space community that his leadership of NASA was about to end after four years.
The space agency chief said in a speech today that it would cost the U.S. government an additional $3 billion a year to keep the aging shuttle fleet flying after 2010, when current plans set by the Bush administration call for its retirement, according to a report from the Associated Press. The plan calls for NASA to lease rides aboard Russian Soyuz transports to service the International Space Station until 2015, when a new rocket system called Constellation should be ready to fly orbital missions.
Griffin stressed that the current plan not only emphasizes financial concerns but safety issues, as well.
"We would have a one-in-eight chance of losing the crew in one of the 10 flights," Griffin said of the prospects of keeping the shuttles in service for five years.
Still, with a new presidential administration taking office in the days ahead, attention is focusing on what President-elect Barack Obama's science advisors will recommend for the future of NASA (please see our previous entry Will a New President Shake Up the U.S. Space Program?). Obama is well known to prefer that NASA keep the shuttles in operation.
Meanwhile, an editorial today in the influential Orlando Sentinel (which covers Cape Canaveral closely) argues that Griffin should be relieved of command.
"It's high time for him to go," the paper's editors write. It explained:
Mr. Griffin brought unmatched credentials as a scientist and engineer to the administrator's job when he took over in 2005. Under his leadership, NASA completed the lengthy and difficult process of returning shuttles to flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster and got back to building the international space station.
But Mr. Griffin's approach to NASA's next manned mission -- the moon and Mars program called Constellation -- has been my-way-or-the-highway. Coupled with his cavalier attitude toward chronic cost overruns in other programs, Mr. Griffin has become the wrong man to steer the agency forward. His impatience with criticism is a troubling throwback to the days when dissenting views at NASA were suppressed, with disastrous consequences.
The Sentinel concluded with this statement: "Mr. Obama reportedly has been sizing up successors to Mr. Griffin as the agency heads into a critical transition period between programs. Another administrator -- a fresh set of eyes -- with a strong background in space, but more respect for other views, would be ideal."
The incoming Obama administration's gaze has indeed shifted to successors to Griffin, according to multiple published accounts today. And the individual most discussed in those accounts is former astronaut Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden (Ret.), 62, of Houston.
An article in today's Houston Chronicle reports that Bolden, who serves on NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, has said that he has not formally discussed the job of administrator with representatives of the Obama transition team but that he has spoken about the matter with colleagues within the space agency.
(Please also see this account, Will Obama Pick Bolden to Lead NASA? , in the South Carolina newspaper The State.)
"I'm as surprised as anyone," Bolden said about the reports concerning his name surfacing as a leading candidate. He added that he would welcome the chance to speak with the group charged by Obama to chart the agency's course, headed by former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver, about the opportunity.
The Chronicle report also mentions others in the running to possibly succeed Griffin, including: Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida (who ironically flew aboard the Columbia shuttle piloted by Bolden in 1986); Sally Ride, America's first female astronaut; Scott Hubbard, a Stanford University professor and a former director of NASA's Ames Research Center; Pete Worden, Ames' current director; Ed Weiler, NASA's science chief; and Alan Stern, the agency's previous science chief.
As the days likely dwindle on Griffin's term as NASA's chief administrator, which could extend months into the Obama presidency, the debate over the direction of America's space program moving forward will only intensify, requiring strong leadership from all corners to guide the way.