The next NASA chief

This past week, Mike Griffin announced he is stepping down on January 20 as NASA chief administrator, the politically appointed post that runs America’s space agency. As the Obama transition team accelerates its search for Griffin’s successor, here’s my modest proposal for the next head of NASA: Kevin A. Barnes (yes, me!).

Control your laughter for just a minute. I may have statistically about 0.00% chance of being appointed, but this is a good opportunity to examine the skills, experience and personality that NASA needs right now in its chief administrator in order to succeed:

  • Business Experience and Savvy — Since the days of the moon landings, NASA has grown into the ultimate bureaucracy. Complex red tape and organizational lethargy were cited as contributing factors in both the Challenger and Columbia disasters. Chief administrator candidates should have a track record running successful private sector organizations, ideally with entrepreneurial experience as  well. NASA is well known for running millions of dollars over budget on virtually every new program. An entrepreneurial mindset can enable the agency to budget realistically and then live within those budgets.
  • Outsider Status — The short list of replacements for Mike Griffin that is publicly circulating consists entirely of NASA insiders, either former astronauts or NASA section heads. Outside of government, numerous businesses have repeatedly demonstrated the value of bringing in senior leadership from different industries in order to provide a fresh (and unbiased) perspective. The new NASA chief administrator should be someone who looks at everything with fresh eyes, not someone embedded in the current NASA culture who accepts the agency’s sacred cows without question.
  • Innovation LeadershipNASA is the organization that developed from scratch the technology and processes to land humans on the moon. Yet today’s NASA, when tasked with returning to the moon, addressed that challenge by taking existing shuttle components (like the solid rocket boosters) and incorporating them into what could politely be called an “Apollo knockoff.” It’s time for NASA to rediscover innovation.
  • A DreamerNASA is all about achieving and surpassing the dreams of humanity. That’s why the agency needs someone who thinks beyond just “delivering cargo to the international space station” and instead dreams of a future when humans work and live throughout the solar system, and even beyond the Sun’s neighborhood. To reach the stars, you need to aim a little higher than low Earth orbit.

The incoming Obama administration has already demonstrated its ability to go beyond the status quo and exceed expectations when appointing key leaders in the new administration. The appointment of the next NASA chief administrator is critical for the agency, but fortunately President-elect Obama and his team seem up to the challenge of selecting the right person to lead the agency back to greatness.

Oh, and in case I forgot to mention it, I stand willing and able to serve, not to mention I meet all of the qualifications listed above. I have the necessary non-governmental business experience, including two stints as an entrepreneur; I’m definitely an outsider (I did, however, once visit D.C. as a tourist); I have a proven track record both concepting and executing innovative ideas; and when it comes to space exploration, I’m about as big of a dreamer as there is. Here’s my promise: if I serve as NASA’s next chief administrator, we will have human explorers in the Alpha Centauri system by 2069 (the 100th anniversary of the first moon landing).

Just give me a call, Barack.

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