WASHINGTON - President Bush chose Michael D. Griffin yesterday to be the new head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, putting a scientist with technical and management expertise in charge of the space program's ambitious plans to go back to the moon and on to Mars.
Griffin, 55, who is director of the space department at the John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory, must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate to become the 11th administrator of NASA. But early congressional reaction was effusive.
"I think it is a great choice by President Bush. We're actually picking a rocket scientist to head up the rocket science program," Maryland Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said. "I think that Mike brings a great deal of experience in the field of space and aeronautics. He also brings a very solid background in management and administration, which we sorely need."
Griffin has worked for NASA before, including as its chief engineer, and for the Defense Department, in its Strategic Defense Initiative Organization. After leaving the government, he worked for a number of private firms, most recently at In-Q-Tel, a venture capital organization funded by the Central Intelligence Agency.
He has a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Maryland and five master's degrees. If confirmed, Griffin will replace Sean O'Keefe, who left the agency last month after just over three years at the helm. Griffin will have to deal with the last phase of the defining event of O'Keefe's tenure - the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. The space shuttle is scheduled to fly for the first time since the accident in mid-May, putting the agency back on a path toward exploration.
Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University and author of several books about the space program, said the nomination signals two things. First, that NASA will have a full four years of political cover to get the new exploration agenda off the ground; second, that old assumptions within the agency are going to be challenged over the next several years.
"He brings a real outsider's perspective to the agency. There are few people who have fewer commitments to the existing ways of doing things than Mike Griffin," McCurdy said. "He's not an astronaut with a commitment to the shuttle, and he's not an aerospace giant executive with a commitment to the care and feeding of Boeing and Lockheed Martin."
Griffin's tenure at APL - which has consistently challenged NASA's ideas and business practices - lends him additional credibility, McCurdy said.
"He strikes me as somebody who's going to bring in an unconventional perspective and push for new ways of doing things," McCurdy said.
NASA was already changing under O'Keefe, in large part because of the vision for the agency outlined by Bush in January of last year. It calls for finishing construction of the International Space Station, then retiring the shuttle around the end of the decade and using the money to build a new spacecraft that will take astronauts back to the moon and beyond.
The shift in priorities means cuts in other areas at NASA - especially aeronautics. The agency expects that about 2,700 full-time employees will be affected by the changes and must either find new work within the agency or leave by the summer of 2006.
Griffin is well known in the space community, often testifying before Congress or serving on panels and commissions. One study he worked on last year, for the Planetary Society, advocated accelerating the pace of the vision by retiring the shuttle earlier than planned.
John M. Logsdon, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, said that might be the only chink in Griffin's armor, if senators from states with interests in the shuttle program make it an issue.
"If that isn't an obstacle, then I see no others," Logsdon said.
But Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who is one of the shuttle program's chief protectors in Congress, expressed enthusiasm for Griffin in a statement released yesterday.
"He's the kind of leader NASA needs because he knows the space program inside and out," Nelson said.
One issue that is certain to come up during Griffin's confirmation hearing is the fate of the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope, managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Just after the vision was announced, O'Keefe canceled a final shuttle servicing mission to the telescope - and in the budget released last month didn't provide money for anything other than a way to safely take the telescope out of orbit.
Michael G. Hauser, deputy director of the institute, said he knows Griffin only from his resume but said he could bode well for NASA's science program.
"We hope that the next administrator will have a more flexible view about what is the best path for Hubble," Hauser said.
Logsdon, who knows Griffin well professionally, said the door is open.
"I think that decision is far from final," Logsdon said. Mikulski, who has doggedly pursued some kind of reprieve for the Hubble, said she knows Griffin through the APL and is pleased by the prospect of having him in the top job at NASA.
Sun staff writer Michael Stroh contributed to this article.