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Obama's NASA selection is a boost for manned spaceflight

The choice of astronaut Charles Bolden as NASA administrator reassures many who feared that Obama was lukewarm on future manned missions.

May 24, 2009|John Johnson Jr.

President Obama's selection Saturday of former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. to head NASA gives a boost to the agency's manned space program and its stated goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.

During the presidential campaign, Obama had seemed lukewarm toward NASA and its hugely expensive human spaceflight program. Space enthusiasts were particularly worried after Obama staffers floated the idea of taking money from the agency to fund domestic programs.

But now, with the selection of a retired Marine general and astronaut to run the agency, observers are asking whether this means the president has suddenly gotten religion for manned spaceflight.

The answer, according to space policy experts and NASA watchers around the country, is a qualified yes.

They say Bolden's view on specific projects, such as extending the shuttle program beyond the 2010 retirement date chosen by the Bush administration, are still emerging, but his knowledge of the space agency's inner mechanics make him a strong voice for continuing manned flight.

"Clearly Charlie Bolden would not have taken the job if he were being asked to shut down human spaceflight," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert in Washington.

Bolden's name surfaced early and gained momentum, based on his record as an astronaut and his military record of flying more than 100 Marine combat missions in Vietnam. He would also be the first African American administrator of NASA.

The announcement was supposed to coincide with the return of the shuttle Atlantis on Saturday. But bad weather over Cape Canaveral in Florida caused shuttle controllers to wave off the landing for a second day. Rather than keep the guessing game going, the White House announced Bolden's selection.

Bolden, 62, would be the second astronaut to run the agency. Richard H. Truly, a retired Navy vice admiral and shuttle commander, led NASA from 1989 to 1992.

Bolden has been on four shuttle missions and was the pilot on the flight that put the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit in 1990. He lives near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was among the crew on Bolden's first shuttle flight, played an important role in the selection. Nelson led the charge against Obama's first choice for administrator, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, and was an early and vocal advocate for Bolden.

"I trusted Charlie with my life -- and would do so again," Nelson said.

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin called Bolden "a great choice."

"He deserves the status of national hero. This is a guy who has spent most of his life serving his country," Griffin said.

Logsdon said he believed the skepticism about Obama's support for manned flight was "misguided" from the first. The comment about taking money from NASA was made by a junior campaign aide, he said.

He added that a recent announcement of the administration's plans to review the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft, which are to replace the space shuttle by 2015, is not a shot across the bow of NASA's human spaceflight program.

He said it would be a review of the hardware, not the destination or goals.

Roger Launius, a space expert at the Smithsonian Institution, said it was too soon to know how aggressively Bolden would support President George W. Bush's plan of returning astronauts to the moon by 2020 and later going to Mars. Or whether Bolden would, as many expect, extend the life of the shuttle program to close the nearly five-year gap between the last scheduled shuttle flight and the first planned flight of the Ares-Orion system, a period during which NASA astronauts would have to beg rides on Soviet rockets.

"We don't know exactly what this means yet," Launius said. But "I think in Charlie Bolden you'll have an individual who will be strong enough to speak to the administration" when he thinks the agency is going in the wrong direction.

One possible stumbling block to Bolden's approval by the Senate could be new ethics rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest. An Obama executive order prohibits appointees from doing work that is "directly and substantially related" to a former employer or former clients.

Until March 2008, Bolden served on the board of directors for Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based GenCorp Inc., whose Aerojet subsidiary makes propulsion systems and maneuvering engines for the space shuttle and the Orion spacecraft. He would probably need a "limited waiver" from the regulations to head NASA.

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john.johnson@latimes.com

The Orlando Sentinel contributed to this report.

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