NASA Chief Steps Down Without Any Clear Replacement in Sight

Monday, 12 March 2018 - 6:33PM
NASA
Monday, 12 March 2018 - 6:33PM
NASA Chief Steps Down Without Any Clear Replacement in Sight
< >
NASA/Fred Deaton
Robert Lightfoot, the current Acting Administrator of NASA, just announced his retirement today in a surprise statement

As of now, Lightfoot will be stepping down on April 30, 2018 after having served as the de facto chief of NASA for over a year, when he took over for his predecessor Charles Bolden. It's worth noting that as the Acting Administrator, Lightfoot was never officially confirmed as the head of the space agency, but since the Senate never confirmed anybody to be Bolden's replacement, leadership duties fell to Lightfoot.

The current frontrunner for the job has been Trump's appointee Jim Bridenstine, but there's still no clear indication that he'll be confirmed for the position - Senate Democrats and even a few Republicans like Marco Rubio have opposed Bridenstine on the grounds that he has zero qualifications in science or engineering, and he's dismissive of scientific consensus that humans caused climate change (NASA also studies our home planet's climate).

It's entirely possible that somebody else within NASA will be pushed into the "Acting" Administrator role once again, and NASA will continue to have no official leader as the agency faces a shaky future




Lightfoot hasn't given a reason for his upcoming retirement, and in his letter of resignation, he only reflected on the years he spent at the space agency (he first joined NASA in 1989 as a test engineer and program manager, and held various positions since then). The optimistic guess is that he simply decided his mid-fifties are a great time to retire; the pessimistic guess is that he doesn't like where NASA is headed under the Trump administration.

Because while NASA's upcoming plans are exciting, the White House's plans for NASA are much less so. Funding for NASA was quickly slashed under the new administration's budget plan, and Trump is hoping to either shut down the International Space Station in the next several years or sell it off to private companies - if either happens, the important research that occurs there will come to an end.

With everything that NASA is currently dealing with, it's entirely possible that certain projects like the asteroid redirect mission or the Europa flyby could be cancelled. Bigger projects like the advanced SLS rocket or Orion spacecraft could be canned if they aren't managed efficiently under the tight budget. A lunar space station is still possible only because Trump seems to like the Moon, and room for that was added to the budget.



But most importantly, our chances of reaching Mars depend on who replaces Lightfoot as the official/unofficial leader of NASA. Unmanned rovers may still visit the Red Planet from time to time, but the plans to send humans to Mars are complicated and very expensive (and would likely involve the SLS rocket). It would be easy to delay or dismiss the project entirely, so the next head of NASA will have some big decisions to make. 

It would be a huge deal if NASA wasn't the first to send humans to Mars. Because it likely means that Elon Musk will win this new space race and send SpaceX astronauts there first.
Science
Science News
NASA