WASHINGTON — Charles Bolden presented himself to senators Wednesday as an American success story who overcame racism in the segregated South to become an astronaut, a high-ranking military officer and President Barack Obama's nominee to head NASA.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, the former Marine Corps pilot vowed to help the National Aeronautics and Space Administration regain its luster and romance for young Americans.
"Years ago, when I went to speak in schools and asked, 'How many of you want to be astronauts?' all the hands went up," Bolden said. "Now only two or three hands go up."
Bolden, 62, politely but pointedly rebuffed former President George W. Bush's ambitious plan to land an American on Mars by 2020.
"It's a long way to Mars," Bolden said. "I want to go to Mars. I think everybody wants to go to Mars. (But) Mars is a 20-year venture. . . . I cannot go out and tell a kid, 'I want you to come to work for NASA because we're going to Mars.'"
Bolden said NASA must regain scientific research initiative from Europe, Japan and other nations to help combat global warming and develop cutting-edge technology.
"We have not invested in basic technology," Bolden said. "We have allowed aeronautics to sort of whither on the vine. We have a very talented group of people, but they are an aging workforce. We're going to have to inspire young men and women to come to work for NASA."
Democratic and Republican senators alike hailed Bolden at the hearing, signaling that he likely will gain easy Senate confirmation. He'd be the first African-American to lead the agency.
"The president has chosen very wisely," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from Bolden's home state of South Carolina. "(Bolden) is the right man at the right time, with the right skill mix and character. There's no better example of what we can do in America than what General Bolden has achieved."
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who was a payload specialist on a January 1986 mission, told of having watched Bolden, as the commander of the Columbia space shuttle, respond coolly to a helium leak warning light during takeoff. Weeks later, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff, killing all seven of its crew members.
Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she was proud that Bolden and his wife, Jackie, moved to her state of Texas, near the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
"He's a Texas resident, and by gosh, I'm going to claim him," Hutchison said. "I am excited about the opportunity to have someone so experienced in so many areas to take on the huge challenge that NASA faces right now."
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat and the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, made an unusual appearance before the Senate panel to praise Bolden and his family.
Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, warned Bolden that, if confirmed, he faces a tough task in helping NASA regain its former stature.
"NASA is not what it used to be," Rockefeller said. "You have all kinds of problems. NASA is not attracting the kinds of people these days as it used to. It is not today the inspiration of a nation. It's drifted, I think that's indisputable."
With the scheduled retirement of the three remaining space shuttles next year, the U.S. faces a five-year gap in launching astronauts into space. Russian spacecraft will shuttle Americans to the international space station until at least 2015, when the next-generation Constellation U.S. manned launches are expected to begin.
Obama has asked Congress for $18.7 billion for NASA's budget next year, a 5 percent increase over current funding. He set up a special commission to help chart its future course.
Nelson, whose state is home to the Kennedy Space Center, indicated that more money will be needed for the space agency to fulfill its broad-ranging space and scientific missions.
"NASA has been starved of funds and given too much to do with too little resources," he said.
No matter how hard the next NASA chief works, Nelson said, he won't be successful without strong presidential support.
"NASA needs a leader, and the only person who can lead America's space program is the president of the United States," Nelson said.
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