A new deputy NASA administrator, Dava Newman, has been appointed. What is the actual function of a deputy administrator in NASA? What kind of decisions will she be responsible for? And is a deputy likely to become the next top boss?
What is the actual function of a deputy administrator in NASA? What kind of decisions will she be responsible for?
That depends very much on the administrator and how he (they've all been "he" so far) delegates things. Deputy administrator is a political appointment. Sometimes the administrator doesn't like the person foisted on him, and the role is meaningless. Other times, the administrator delegates a lot to his deputy.
And is a deputy likely to become the next top boss?
The deputy has become the acting administrator six times. Acting administrator is a placeholder position. Someone needs to be in charge. As an acting administrator, what they do had better not be anything of consequence. A deputy who became the official administrator: That's happened but once.
The administrator and deputy administrator are the only two political appointments in NASA. When the party of the President changes, the incoming President typically accepts the resignation of the NASA administrator and deputy administrator. How those transitions work vary a lot from administration to administration. Sometimes the President takes his time to get around to dealing with NASA; NASA is a rather small and unimportant government agency from the President's perspective.
Dava Newman will, on the week of May 18 when she'll be sworn in, succeed Lori Garver, that was previous NASA Deputy Administrator till September 2013. So the answer to the latter part of your question, if deputy is likely to become the next top boss, is no, not necessary, but it wouldn't be unheard of;
Garver is now the General Manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, and leads Obama Presidential Transition Agency Review Team for NASA. One previous Deputy Administrator however later became NASA Administrator - Dr. Thomas O. Paine (Deputy from March 25, 1968 to March 20, 1969, Acting Administrator from October 8, 1968 to March 21, 1969 and then Administrator from March 21, 1969 to September 15, 1970).
And for the first part, it would be easiest to appreciate Deputy Administrator's role if we analyzed Garver's work while she held that position (July 17, 2009 to September 6, 2013). According to NASA's Lori B. Garver, NASA Deputy Administrator page:
As deputy administrator, Garver is NASA's second in command. She works closely with the administrator to provide overall leadership, planning, and policy direction for the agency. Together with the NASA administrator, Garver represents NASA to the Executive Office of the President, Congress, heads of government agencies, international organizations, and external organizations and communities. She also oversees the work of NASA's functional offices.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also urged US Senate during last few hearings to approve Newman as he needs help. So it's not merely a prestige position to climb the rungs from. Newman can expect a lot of work ahead.
If you want to compare which Deputy Administrators became NASA Administrators, here's a list of all of them on Wikipedia, since NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) became NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration).