The reshuffling of NASA leadership that began Monday with the resignation of a key architect of America's space policy points to the emergence of a new regime more aggressive than its predecessors and perhaps unlike any other in the agency's history.
When Congress confirmed Michael Griffin as head of NASA a month ago, it was a clear statement. He was a scientist's scientist - a rocket engineer with five master's degrees and a PhD - intended to rouse the institution from a bureaucratic slumber that had been deepening since the last Apollo moon landing. Now, Mr. Griffin is making a statement of his own.
In cleaning house, Griffin is consolidating his position for a pivotal period in NASA history - a time that will see the first shuttle launch since the Columbia disaster and set the stage for the President Bush's plan to send astronauts to the moon and Mars.
This is the moment for action, some say, and Griffin is merely getting on with it - using his scientific clout and know-how to reshape NASA in a time of change. Yet concerns linger, from a perceived ruthlessness to worries that he will be consumed by the immensity of the undertaking.
So far, Griffin appears to be relishing the task, as he seeks to provide NASA with the leadership and focus that the agency has sought for more than 30 years.
"If it's business as usual, this is not something NASA can take on," says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif. "There is a major redirection ... and that means [Griffin] was brought in to bring changes."
Those changes are inseparable from the president's desire to return an astronaut to the Moon by 2020 and then strike out for Mars. The plan calls for a reordering of NASA's priorities and budget to meet the goal, and that gives Griffin a different role from administrators of the past.
During the Clinton years, Daniel Goldin was famous for trying to do more with less, applying the motto "faster, better, cheaper" to an organization straining against its budgets. Under Bush, Sean O'Keefe acted largely as an accountant, trying to get NASA's house in order. Now, Griffin's job is to understand a vision of enormous complexity - and to make it happen.
"There are a huge number of fundamental choices on technology, mission, and priorities that his background helps to sift through," says David Goldston, chief of staff for the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
According to government rules, Monday was the first day that Griffin could issue reassignment letters to staff, and all indications are that he wants new leaders to nudge NASA forward.
In some ways, the resignation of Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, associate administrator of exploration, was typical of the fallout of leadership changes, when new bosses surround themselves with people they trust. But there was also an important subtext - a thematic thread that has run though Griffin's first month on the job: If NASA is to implement the president's plans, it needs to get moving.
Admiral Steidle wanted the next-generation shuttle - called the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) - to be ready by 2014. Griffin wants it by 2010. The shuttle and the space station it serves made up slightly less than 40 percent of NASA's $15.4 billion budget request this year - and neither gets NASA closer to the Moon or Mars. NASA can't abandon the mission; the US has spent more than $100 billion on the space station. So it needs to finish the job and design a more versatile vehicle as soon as possible.
As if to drive that point home, NASA also announced Monday that it had chosen two aerospace firms - Lockheed and Boeing - to design competing CEV prototypes by next year, ensuring that the final version would be ready by 2010.
For now, NASA says it will not "jump the gun" and make further personnel announcements until they are final, says spokesman Dean Acosta. But few doubt they are coming. And the way Griffin has gone about it has caught some off guard.
"He's really not taking time to consider the people involved," says Mr. Cowing of NASA Watch, who estimates that as many as 50 senior managers could be reassigned.
Others look at the scope of the president's plan and wonder if it's feasible at a time when Congress isn't likely to give all the funding NASA may want. "I don't understand how he thinks this will be fundable over the long term," says Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation. "Taxpayers funds are not sustainable over the long term."
The answer, Mr. Tumlinson says, is to encourage a robust private industry, something Griffin himself promoted as a scientist but has since shied away from as administrator - returning to the old standbys of Lockheed and Boeing for his CEV bidding, for example. But Griffin's clout is such that even critics are giving him leeway. After all, NASA's new chief is still a scientist at heart, e-mailing enthusiasts and entrepreneurs like Tumlinson - something unheard of with previous administrators.
"He's building up strong centralized control so he can do his mission," says Tumlinson.
• Staff writer Kris Axtman contributed to this report from Houston.