Yesterday, I was talking with a colleague when another astronomer stopped by, poked his head in the door, and whispered worriedly, "Stern is out. Weiler is back in." My colleague's face fell.
This seemingly cryptic quote referred to a staff change at NASA yesterday, when the Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Directorate, Dr. Alan Stern, resigned abruptly. His temporary replacement is Dr. Edward Weiler, presently head of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Dr. Stern took the job as head of NASA's Science Directorate (the people in charge of robotic space probes, space telescopes, and other non-human outer space science at NASA) just a year ago. Stern quickly endeared himself to many of us by giving a series of town hall-style meetings and making changes to details of NASA funding that most people seemed to think were positive. To have him leave suddenly is therefore quite a shock to many people.
I am not a NASA insider, and since very little of my funding comes through NASA, I've paid little attention to their policies and future projections. I try to stay informed, but I'm not a NASA policy junkie. Many of my colleagues, especially those with lots of NASA funding, understandably are quite tuned in to NASA. And they seem worried by this development.
Why did Stern resign? I really don't know. The resignation came a few days after a flap over funding for the Mars Rovers, and there have been some tough decisions that have been made or were about to be made regarding Mars exploration missions. Or maybe Stern just didn't fit in to the very political climate that exists at the upper echelons of any governmental organization. Or perhaps Stern's vision for NASA science didn't fit in with that of the Administrator (Michael Griffin) and that of the Bush administration (NASA's ultimate boss). Of course, rumors (many contradictory), speculation, and conspiracy theories are already flying around.
For most of us, we really don't know what this change may mean. But, if you like political intrigue and are tired of following the presidential campaign, maybe NASA will be able to give you a fix over the next few weeks.