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NSRC 2020

NASA administrator Charles Bolden addresses a breakfast meeting of the Space Transportation Association in Washington on October 8. (credit: J. Foust)

Thinking a little differently at NASA

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Last week was certainly an interesting one for new NASA administrator Charles Bolden. On Wednesday he put in not one but two appearances at the White House: at a ceremony honoring winners of the National Medal of Science and National Medal of Technology and Innovation that afternoon, and at a star party on the South Lawn that night. Friday morning, before heading off to South Korea for the International Astronautical Congress (IAC), he appeared at the Newseum in downtown Washington at an event to observe the impact of NASA’s LCROSS spacecraft on the Moon. And, in between, he found himself in the crosshairs of a late-night talk show host.

“When the president asked me to take this job, I told him I didn’t want this job,” Bolden said.

It’s not clear if David Letterman even knows who the administrator of NASA is right now, but the impending LCROSS impact was reason enough for him to put together a Top Ten list: “Top Ten Signs The Head of NASA Is Nuts”. Among the reasons, in the eyes of Letterman and his writers: “Commutes to work in the Lunar Rover” (#9); “Freaked out when he heard GM was closing Saturn” (#8); “Hasn’t removed his space helmet since 1996” (#5); and “Announced he wants to fake another moon landing by 2015” (#3).

The Charles Bolden who showed up Thursday morning on Capitol Hill to address a breakfast meeting of the Space Transportation Association did not, of course, appear by anyone to be nuts: he wasn’t wearing a space helmet, and there was no sign of a lunar rover parked outside. However, in his speech—which focused much less on policy and technology specifics than many attendees might have hoped for—he did indicate he was bringing a little different way of thinking about the role of the administrator.

The reluctant administrator?

Earlier this year the space community waited—impatiently, at times—for the new administration to nominate a NASA administrator. Since January Bolden’s name had been widely circulated as a leading candidate, with the strong backing of Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chair of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee. However, it wasn’t until Memorial Day weekend, long after a number of names were proposed but rejected, that Bolden was formally nominated. That led some to believe that Bolden was a compromise choice, forced upon the White House by Nelson and/or the only remaining viable candidate. However, there may have been another reason for the delay: Bolden himself wasn’t initially interested in becoming administrator.

“When the president asked me to take this job, I told him I didn’t want this job,” Bolden said. He said he had been told a statement like that would send the wrong signal, but held firm. “I really don’t care what signal this sends, I did not want this job, and I told people I would not take this job.”

What changed his mind, he said, was a face-to-face meeting with President Obama. At that meeting Obama told the story about, as a child growing up in Hawaii, waving to the Apollo-era astronauts as they arrived there after splashing down in the Pacific. “He gave me one instruction when I finally said yes. He said, ‘I want you to make NASA inspire young people again,’” he recalled. “I made a deal with him: if, a year from now, Sasha and Malia [the president’s daughters] don’t have an interest in science and math, you can fire me.”

What made him initially oppose taking the administrator’s job, he said, was the experience he had during a brief stint as assistant deputy administrator at NASA Headquarters in the early 1990s, when he was still part of the astronaut corps. “It was the worst eight months of my life,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I did not want to come back to Washington.”

“What I hope to do here in my tenure as NASA administrator, no matter how short it is, is to try to unite people in something that I think is critically important.”

He described one meeting he had with Congressman John Lewis, a Democrat from the Atlanta area, trying to win support for what was then Space Station Freedom at a critical point in the program. What was supposed to be a 15-minute meeting stretched out to an hour, with Lewis doing all the talking. “He talked to me for an hour about the importance of human spaceflight and the importance of exploration and what it will do for our nation,” Bolden said. Yet Lewis said he wouldn’t vote for the space station because NASA didn’t do anything in his home district, and that he felt he would risk his seat if he voted for the station.

“I learned a valuable lesson,” he said. Members of Congress didn’t spend their time trying to figure out “how to screw NASA today”—or other programs, for that matter. He also recalled the “lapel pin fiasco” from last year’s presidential campaign, when whether or not candidates wore American flag lapel pins on their suits got media attention. “We pick trivial things about which to make critical decisions,” he said. “What I hope to do here in my tenure as NASA administrator, no matter how short it is, is to try to unite people in something that I think is critically important.”

Augustine and architectures

What is critically important, in the eyes of many who work for or with NASA, is the future direction of the agency’s exploration program. That has been the subject of the work by the Review of US Human Space Flight Plans Committee (aka the Augustine committee), whose full final report may come out later this week, while Bolden is in South Korea at the IAC. “I’d hate to be out of the country when it’s issued, but that may happen,” he said.

One thing that he noted during the Augustine committee’s deliberations has been a change in emphasis on the importance of the International Space Station (ISS). “When you have an opportunity to talk to Norm Augustine… he will tell you that at the beginning of their deliberations the International Space Station was off, it was off the table,” Bolden said. “They had no any desire for it, they didn’t think it was worthwhile or anything.” What changed their mind, he said, was testimony from international partners and US businesses about the importance of the station. The ISS now figures prominently in most of the options the committee has considered.

While the Augustine committee did its work this summer, Bolden said that a NASA “leadership team” has also been studying exploration, focusing initially more on “why” rather than “how”. That team, including associate administrators and center directors, has been meeting by telecon for the last couple of months, three days a week for up to three hours at a time. “We started with asking the question ‘why’: why do we do this?” he said. “Why do we risk human life in the exploration of space?”

“I would love to tell you where we’re going,” Bolden said. “That’s not my prerogative. That’s the president’s prerogative.”

Bolden didn’t say what answers the team came up with during the meetings, but did state that the team has moved on to the question of how to carry out human space exploration. That, he said, was a different approach from the Augustine committee, which he felt focused more on technical architectures than on the reasons why (although the committee did take up the question internally, as Jeff Greason, a committee member, recently noted.) “When you get stuck with architecture, you can do bad things,” Bolden said. “You really want to find out why you want to do something, and then ask yourself if this is what we want to do, how do we best accomplish it?”

Bolden said the team has been “migrating to a position that we want to recommend to the president,” without offering any specifics about what that might be. Bolden also didn’t know what timetable the White House might have in making a decision once the Augustine committee’s report is released, but did note he frequently talks with presidential science advisor John Holdren. “I’m the technical person. I’m supposed to give him technical information and tell him what’s feasible and what’s not,” Bolden said of his discussions with Holdren. “We’ve been working pretty hard with the White House and the Executive Office of the President trying to determine the best way for the country to go through this,” he said.

“I would love to tell you where we’re going,” he added. “That’s not my prerogative. That’s the president’s prerogative.”

An administrator who thinks different

Bolden provides an interesting study in contrasts with the previous two NASA administrators. One, Sean O’Keefe, was a political insider who had close ties to the White House in the Bush Administration but limited technical expertise about space. The other, Mike Griffin, was almost the opposite: a man with deep technical knowledge but without the same level of political connectedness as his predecessor. Bolden lies somewhere in between—if not off the axis entirely in another dimension. He is not a political insider, but at least for now enjoys a close relationship with the White House; he is not an engineer or scientist, but has an appreciation for technical issues from his career as an astronaut. (Also, unlike Griffin, who famously said that he didn’t “do feelings”, Bolden said Thursday he wasn’t afraid to cry—and, on cue, sounded a bit choked up as mentioned it was his father who taught him that.)

Instead, Bolden described himself as someone who wanted to avoid the old political games and ways of doing business in Washington to forge a new direction for NASA. At times he sounded even disdainful of politics, noting both his previous stint in Washington in the early 90s and his long career in the Marine Corps, who he described as the “best and brightest” in the country. “I’ve worked with much better people than I meet in Washington, DC, every day,” he said, a line that elicited some self-deprecatory laughter from an audience of members of Congress, staffers, lobbyists, and others who deal with the political issues of spaceflight.

“I won’t talk about politics. I don’t do politics. For those of you who want to teach me, I don’t want to learn,” he said at one point. “I’m not here to get used to this culture. I don’t want to get used to this culture. But if you will allow me to do the job you asked me to do, I’ll do it and I will do it well.”

“I think I can make a difference, but I can’t do anything if we don’t change the way we operate.”

Will Washington let him? Certainly the next several weeks will be a challenge, as the Augustine committee’s final report his the streets and, some time after, the White House makes a decision on what direction the space agency should go and how much additional money—if any—it will ask from Congress for NASA. While some members of Congress have called for increased NASA funding, including redirecting already-allocated stimulus funds to the agency, few of them serve on key appropriations committees where funding decisions get made. It’s an atmosphere that will certainly require someone, if not the NASA administrator, to “do politics” to see the administration’s human space exploration plans through, whatever they turn out to be.

“I know you’re frustrated,” he said at one point in response to a question about the development of that new policy. “Let me tell you, I’m frustrated. But that’s just the way the process works around here.”

At least, that’s the process until Bolden finds a way to change it. “I think I can make a difference, but I can’t do anything if we don’t change the way we operate.”