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Obama and Bolden
President Barack Obama meets with Charles Bolden (right) last Tuesday, a few days before the president nominated Bolden to be NASA administrator. (credit: Pete Souza/White House)

Bolden’s burdens

The agita that had been plaguing many space professionals and enthusiasts for weeks, if not months, was finally relieved—at least partially—this weekend when the White House finally announced its pick for NASA administrator: former astronaut and retired Marine Corps general Charles Bolden. Coupled with the nomination of Lori Garver to be deputy administrator, the announcement addressed the lack of permanent leadership for the space agency that publicly worried many in the space field.

While the announcement may have been lower key than many might have liked, the nomination was almost universally praised, particularly on Capitol Hill.

The announcement, when it did come, was something of an anticlimax. A little over a week earlier Bolden’s name emerged as a leading candidate—somewhat surprisingly, since he had not been widely considered a favorite candidate of the Obama Administration previously, despite months of eager support from Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who flew with Bolden on the shuttle mission immediately before the Challenger accident and now chairs the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. On Tuesday Bolden met with President Obama, but few details about the meeting were released. The president, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a briefing that day, “hopes that he’s [Bolden] the right person to lead NASA in the coming years and through its evolving role.”

The question now became less of who would be nominated, but when. Speaking with the crew of the space shuttle Atlantis on Wednesday, President Obama hinted that the announcement was imminent. “I can’t disclose it to you, because I gotta have some hoopla on the announcement back here on Earth,” he said.

“And just so we’re sure,” responded STS-125 commander Scott Altman, “the new administrator’s not any of us on the flight deck right now, is it?”

“You know, I’m not going to give you any hints,” the president replied, laughing.

President Obama’s statement that the nomination would have “some hoopla” suggested it might be tied in some manner to the shuttle’s return to Earth, then scheduled for Friday morning. Weather, though, delayed the landing until Saturday, and then again until Sunday. Around the time that Saturday’s landing was postponed—about eight in the morning Eastern time, at the beginning of a three-day weekend—came the official announcement from the White House about Bolden’s and Garver’s nominations. (An announcement that, as of late Monday evening, was still missing from the White House web site.) So much for hoopla.

While the announcement may have been lower key than many might have liked, the nomination was almost universally praised, particularly on Capitol Hill. “The nomination of General Bolden to lead NASA is a positive sign for the future of our human spaceflight program,” said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL), whose district includes the Kennedy Space Center. “I am impressed by Maj. Gen. Bolden’s resume, and I look forward to learning more about him during the confirmation process, and working with him in his new role,” said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee.

Not surprising, Sen. Nelson was particularly effusive in his praise, releasing a video statement the same morning as the nomination was announced. “When people get to know Charlie Bolden, you’ll see why the president picked him,” Nelson said. “He’s a patriot, a leader, and a visionary, and he understands the workings of NASA and the importance of America remaining a leader in science and technology through space exploration.”

Bolden, of course, must still have his nomination confirmed by the Senate. On Saturday both the chairman of the Commerce Committee, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), and its ranking member, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), promised to expedite the nomination while also praising it. No timetable for a confirmation hearing has been announced, but by comparison, the Senate confirmed Mike Griffin just over a month after his nomination in March 2005.

The chorus of praise for Bolden suggests that the confirmation process should be relatively smooth and quick, but there are no guarantees. Prior to Saturday’s announcement there were some reports that Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee whose jurisdiction includes NASA, was opposed to the nomination. She told the Orlando Sentinel last week that “we’ll be good to go” should Bolden be nominated, but added that “we’ll wait until we get the nomination”.

“When people get to know Charlie Bolden, you’ll see why the president picked him,” said Sen. Bill Nelson

That last statement was in response to concerns about potential conflicts of interest Bolden might have as administrator. He served on the board of directors of GenCorp, the parent corporation of propulsion company Aerojet, from January 2005 until March 2008. The Sentinel reported Saturday that Bolden will need a “limited waiver” from the administration’s ethics rules to serve as NASA administrator because of that service, as well as for work as a consultant for SAIC.

One issue that should not be an obstacle, contrary to some earlier reports, was Bolden’s work as a “lobbyist” for ATK in 2005 regarding shuttle-derived launch systems for use in NASA’s exploration plans. Bolden was indeed registered as a lobbyist with Congress effective June 1, 2005, but that contract ended on September 15 of that year, with less than $10,000 in income claimed in the only report filed with Congress. Bolden, in a September 2006 letter to the Senate Office of Public Records, said the lobbyist registration was all a mistake. “I was employed as a consultant to ATK for several months in 2005 and they improperly reported me as a lobbyist for them,” he wrote.

What to expect

Assuming no unexpected obstacles emerge, it appeared quite likely that Bolden will become NASA administrator, perhaps in the next month or so, depending on how quickly the Senate acts. What should the agency and other expect from the new administrator?

Bolden’s public paper trail is fairly limited. In June 2006 he testified before the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee (then chaired by Sen. Hutchison, with Sen. Nelson as the ranking member) on “outside perspectives” on NASA’s budget and programs. Beyond discussions of the importance of international cooperation and the need to get students interested in science and engineering, he expressed the importance of “a balanced program of human exploration and science and aeronautics research”, rather than favoring human or robotic spaceflight. “While we may be able to continue many of the science and exploration programs on which we have been embarked over the past forty plus years,” he stated, “we cannot do them on the cheap and we cannot do them in series.”

That meant, in his opinion, a need for spending more money on the agency and its programs. At the time of his testimony NASA was under some criticism for cutting back on science and aeronautics programs in order to support the exploration program. “From my perspective,” he wrote, “you in the Congress and the President must see your way to expanding the funding for the NASA by some marginal amount that will enable Dr. Griffin to retain emphasis on many of the science and aeronautics programs that are being reduced or cut.” That echoes more recent comments by NASA supporters in Congress, but may fly in the face of administration policy: while NASA is the beneficiary of some near-term largesse in the form of $1 billion in stimulus funding as well as a healthy budget increase in the fiscal year 2010 budget proposal, the future budget projections by the White House call for flat funding for NASA for the next several years.

“From my perspective,” Bolden wrote in 2006 testimony, “you in the Congress and the President must see your way to expanding the funding for the NASA by some marginal amount that will enable Dr. Griffin to retain emphasis on many of the science and aeronautics programs that are being reduced or cut.”

For the last few years Bolden has also served on NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP), a group best known for its annual reports on safety issues with the agency and its programs, in particular human spaceflight. The panel’s 2008 annual report, released last month, came down strongly in favor of not extending the shuttle program beyond its current manifest of flights. “Continuing to fly the Shuttle not only would increase the risk to crews, but also could jeopardize the future U.S. Exploration program by squeezing available resources (and, in the worst case, support) for the Constellation program,” the ASAP report concluded.

The panel was also skeptical of other proposals to shorten the gap in human spaceflight access. Accelerating Ares 1 and Orion wasn’t feasible, the panel found, because of the need for “sufficient time to identify and resolve problems” as well as the early stage of development for both vehicles. Also, the report bluntly concluded that “the private sector cannot bridge the gap”, noting a lack of evidence that vehicles under development for NASA’s COTS program “will be completed in time to minimize the gap.”

That recommendation played a supporting role in a debate on Capitol Hill last week about NASA’s support of COTS and commercial ISS resupply efforts. NASA earlier announced it was putting $150 million of stimulus funding towards commercial ISS crew transportation: $70 million to develop general capabilities, including human rating requirements for commercial vehicles (the lack of which was cited in the ASAP report) and $80 million “to stimulate activity for commercial crew”, as acting administrator Chris Scolese explained last week during a hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee.

Sen. Nelson, the subcommittee’s chairman, pressed Scolese why the money wasn’t instead put towards COTS Capability D (COTS-D), the human spaceflight option of the COTS program. Nelson noted that the 2008 NASA authorization act required NASA to enter into at least two funded Space Act Agreements for COTS-D. While Scolese said he felt $150 million wasn’t sufficient for that, Nelson was not impressed. “We had a unique opportunity this year, between the 2009 operating plan and the additional funds provided by the stimulus bill, and the development of the 2010 budget, to craft a COTS-D plan that would have funded the program at the level the folks needed,” Nelson said. “And that path was not pursued. NASA did not obey the law.”

Earlier in the day, though, at a hearing by Mikulski’s appropriations subcommittee, commercial ISS transportation came under attack by the subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). “I believe that manned spaceflight is something that is still in the realm of government, because despite their best efforts, some truly private enterprises have not yet been able to deliver on plans of launching vehicles,” he said in his opening statement, specifically mentioning SpaceX and its limited launch record to date. “However grandiose the claims of proponents” of COTS-D, “they cannot substitute for the painful truth of failed performance at present.”

“At NASA it’s no ordinary job: he’s going to face budgetary constraints, technical issues, the remaining shuttle launches and the pending retirement of the space shuttle,” Nelson said.

However, the biggest issues facing NASA—the future of the current exploration architecture—may be out of Bolden’s hands. That topic is the subject of an independent panel to be chaired by former Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine. That panel has been slow in starting up—no other members of the panel have yet been named, nearly three weeks after the administration announced plans for review—but their conclusions will presumably play a major part in the administration’s eventual decision on whether to proceed with Ares 1 and Orion or to go off in a different direction.

Implementing those decisions will then be a major challenge for Bolden and his team once they start work at NASA. But well before he was nominated, he got some advice from his predecessor: an appendix of the ASAP report includes a written set of responses to questions posed by ASAP to Mike Griffin. One of those questions was a request for “top five” goals for a new administrator. Griffin’s response: “stay the course” on the current exploration strategy; additional funding for the agency, on the order of $3 billion a year; greater involvement by the president in NASA affairs to avoid the “deleterious effects” of White House staff imposing “personal agendas” on NASA affairs; insistence on “top-level” technical and management talent; and the need to “re-establish the freedom to fail, now and then, without requiring that heads roll.”

Even Bolden’s staunchest supporters realize that will be a tall order for the incoming administrator. “At NASA it’s no ordinary job: he’s going to face budgetary constraints, technical issues, the remaining shuttle launches and the pending retirement of the space shuttle,” Nelson said in his statement Saturday. “He needs, and he has to, restore that wonder that space exploration provides, and he needs to carry out the president’s mission, and that is to have us on the Moon by 2020.”


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