President-elect Barack Obama has asked retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration, one of his top foreign policy and military advisers during the campaign, to take the helm of NASA, according to a source informed of the selection.
An announcement is expected as soon as Wednesday. If that happens, he would be the first NASA administrator to be announced before the incoming president's inauguration.
Gration, a decorated fighter pilot who held senior policy positions in the military prior to his retirement, is a virtual unknown to the space community, but has some experience with NASA. In 1982, as a captain and fighter pilot instructor recently returned from Kenya, Gration spent a year as a White House Fellow working for NASA's deputy administrator at the time, Hans Mark.
Gration's lack of space experience should not preclude him from being qualified for the job, said John Logsdon, a space policy expert here.
"There are lots of NASA administrators who have come from other areas without a background in space," he said. "You want a guy who is a leader and can manage a large organization."
[A source familiar with the transition process at NASA told msnbc.com Tuesday that Gration was a "serious contender" for the agency's top post. However, the source was not involved in personnel decisions and thus could not say whether the position was actually offered to Gration. This source spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic publicly. Efforts by msnbc.com to contact Gration were unsuccessful.]
As a pilot Gration logged more than 1,000 hours of combat missions, according to the Air Force's Web site. He retired from active duty in October 2006. He went on to campaign for Obama alongside former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and retired Gen. Merrill McPeak, former Air Force chief of staff, as part of Obama's national security policy working group.
Gration led the retired generals tribute during the National Democratic Convention in August, telling the audience he is a former Republican who met then-Sen. Obama in 2005 while serving as director of strategy, plans and policy at U.S. European Command.
"That's when I met a leader unlike any I had met before," he said. "He asked tough questions, and he didn't settle for easy answers. It was this same way of thinking that led him to get it right, when he opposed the war in Iraq, when he warned of its consequences. That's the judgment of a leader."
After their meeting in 2005, Gration accompanied Obama on a five-nation, 15-day tour of Africa in 2006.
Gration, the son of missionary parents, spent part of his childhood in the Congo and speaks Swahili fluently, according to a Newsweek article published in August 2007.
He joined the Air Force in 1974 through the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering. He earned a master's degree in national security studies from Georgetown University in Washington in 1988.
This report was supplemented by msnbc.com's Alan Boyle.
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