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'Sense of drift' ails NASA, Obama says

The agency needs a mission suitable for the 21st century, the president says. The shuttle launch is delayed until Sunday.

March 12, 2009|Mark K. Matthews

WASHINGTON — President Obama said Wednesday that NASA was an agency afflicted by "a sense of drift" and that it needed a "mission that is appropriate for the 21st century."

During an interview, Obama said the first priority of a new agency administrator -- whom he promised to appoint soon -- would be "to think through what NASA's core mission is and what the next great adventures and discoveries are under the NASA banner."

Until that happens, he said, the White House would delay any major policy decisions about the agency.

That probably would ensure the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 -- as Obama called for in the budget proposal he gave Congress -- and pave the way for massive job losses at Florida's Kennedy Space Center and surrounding areas.

Once the shuttle is retired, NASA will depend on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for access to the International Space Station.

The president's remarks came as NASA decided to scrub the scheduled Wednesday night launch of the shuttle Discovery, citing a hydrogen leak. The launch, repeatedly delayed because of concerns about valves in its fuel system, has been rescheduled for Sunday evening.

NASA has been without an administrator since before Obama took office, and the president made clear Wednesday that the space agency could not continue on its current course.

"Shaping a mission for NASA that is appropriate for the 21st century is going to be one of the biggest tasks of my new NASA director," he said. "What I don't what NASA to do is just limp along. And I don't think that's good for the economy in the region either."

Several names have been floated as replacements for former agency chief Michael Griffin. Congressional and space industry sources said the front-runner appeared to be Steve Isakowitz, a former NASA official now with the Energy Department. Other candidates include former NASA astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr., and two retired Air Force generals, Lester L. Lyles and J. Scott Gration.

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mmatthews@orlandosentinel.com

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