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There’s No One Steering the Ship at NASA

Drifting for a year without an administrator, the agency’s acting chief quits as manned missions are poised to resume.
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NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot Jr., plans to retire at the end of April after a 30-year career with the agency. His departure makes a bad situation worse for the organization that put the first humans on the moon.

Robert Lightfoot Jr.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

In its second year without a permanent leader, NASA has been trying to pivot back toward human spaceflight for the first time since the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011. Simultaneously, it faces critical decisions about how to end America’s role in the International Space Station. Now the career agency hand who had been steering the ship is leaving, too.

Lightfoot, a former director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, began his career as a test engineer on the shuttle engine program. In a memo to NASA employees Monday, he said his announcement was made with “bittersweet feelings.”

“I leave NASA blessed with a career full of memories of stunning missions, cherished friendships, and an incredible hope for what is yet to come,” he wrote. A NASA spokesman declined to comment.

Lightfoot has served as the interim director since January 2017, when Charles Bolden resigned at the end of the Obama administration. President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead NASA, Oklahoma Congressman Jim Bridenstine, has been entangled in a partisan fight in the Senate.

Bridenstine, a Republican, “has the highest regard” for Lightfoot, “who has dedicated his life to the world's greatest space agency,” spokeswoman Sheryl Kaufman said in an email. The congressman “remains optimistic” regarding a confirmation vote soon, she said.

Florida Senator Bill Nelson, who has led Senate Democrats in their unified opposition to Bridenstine, said there are “a number of highly qualified individuals” at NASA who could replace Lightfoot. “Longer term, the White House needs to nominate a space professional for NASA administrator who will actually garner strong bipartisan support,” Nelson said in a statement. “The current nominee doesn’t have the votes.”

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