The NASA Administrator Waiting Game
In our culture of rapid news and instant gratification, waiting is more challenging than it once was for many of us.
Even before the 2016 US presidential election, rumors and speculation swirled around who would replace outgoing NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Conversations surrounding potential Administrator candidates only intensified as Trump space advisors published possible space policy initiatives and strategies. At the 33rd Space Symposium earlier this month, the naming of the new NASA Administrator seemed all but official. Yet NASA continues to be led by Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot with no congressional nomination hearings scheduled to confirm a full Administrator.
President Donald Trump has been in office for 88 days. This may seem like an eternity in politics. However, NASA leadership has never been a top priority for any presidential administration. While few have inside knowledge as to how much longer NASA must wait before a full Administrator is named, we can assume it's not an urgent item on the President's to-do list.
Is President Trump dragging his feet on this issue? Or is he following in the footsteps of the presidents before him? To gain understanding, we need to examine history.
Since its creation in 1958, NASA has been led by 11 full Administrators and a handful of Acting Administrators. Only one NASA Administrator started his term the day after the previous Administrator ended his term with no Acting Administrator in between: Daniel Golden. All other Administrators have been preceded by one or two temporary leaders. This does not count Thomas Paine, who served as Acting Administrator until he himself was nominated and confirmed as Administrator.
Aside from Golden, waiting time between full Administrators ranged from 24 days to 222 days. At 88 days waiting thus far, Trump's new Administrator will not among the quickest appointments. If Trump's appointment was confirmed by the Senate today, waiting time would fall in the middle of the pack. If Trump's appointment isn't confirmed until August 31 or later, it will break the record for the longest wait.
Four NASA Administrators have resigned on or within one month of a first or second term presidential inauguration, including the most recent Administrator Bolden. The duties of a new president or new presidential term include a long list of priorities, of which appointing a new NASA Administrator is not high on the list. Of those four, the quickest appointment was 84 days. In comparison, Trump's new Administrator appointment isn't late at all. The two other after-inauguration appointments were confirmed in July, 171 and 178 days past the year's January 20 inauguration.
Does this mean we must wait until July before we can expect a new NASA Administrator? Not necessarily. But it does mean that we should exercise patience. All things relative, Trump isn't “late” appointing a new Administrator until September.