Politics & Government

Obama gives NASA's new pilot a challenging flight plan

WASHINGTON — Charles Bolden's task as NASA's new chief will be more difficult and complex than merely restoring the space agency's glory days of the 1960s, when the United States raced and beat the Soviet Union to the moon.

In announcing Bolden as his pick to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Obama Saturday gave little hint of the challenges that the Columbia, S.C., native will face if, as expected, he wins Senate confirmation.

Bolden, Obama said, "will help put NASA on course to boldly push the boundaries of space, aeronautics and exploration in the 21st Century, and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program."

Obama tapped Lori Garver, an aeronautics consultant who led his presidential transition's review of NASA, to be deputy administrator of an agency that's still haunted by the space shuttle tragedies of the last two decades.

Bolden, a 62-year-old retired Marine Corps general, would be the first African-American and only the second astronaut to head NASA. He didn't respond Saturday to requests for comment and said recently he was "under an embargo."

Bolden's toughest assignment is bridging the divide within NASA and among its powerful contractors between its glamorous traditional mission of manned space exploration and an expanding research focus made more urgent by climate change and other environmental issues.

"These are two separate challenges," Franco Enouldi, the director of earth sciences at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in an interview. "People will differ on which one is more important. Are the funds there to accomplish (both) missions? That is a serious question whose answer is not clear."

Obama has formed a commission to study the future of NASA, and he summoned Bolden to the White House on Tuesday to gain assurances that its prospective leader would implement its recommendations.

President George W. Bush made a splash just after his re-election in January 2004 when he called for returning an astronaut to the Moon by 2020 and landing an American on Mars by 2030.

Many space experts consider those goals costly and unrealistic, especially at a time of financial crisis when huge amounts of federal money are being devoted to restoring the economy, fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and combatting terrorism.

Bolden's background as an astronaut who logged 680 hours of space flight time prompts concern among some scientists that he'll favor the expensive endeavor of flying Americans through space.

Jeffrey Bada, a professor of geosciences research at the University of California in San Diego, heads an international team of scientists that's developing a new Mars rover to probe the Red Planet for signs of life and other mysteries.

"This may be good for the manned space-flight program, but it remains to be seen what this will mean for the (unmanned) space exploration and earth observation programs," Bada said Saturday. "I would hate to see these important programs minimized simply so we can send more people into space and to the Moon."

Bolden gets a warmer reception from the Coalition for Space Exploration, a group of space industry businesses.

"Bolden is a strong and experienced leader who will balance the priorities of the agency," said Dean Acosta, a Boeing executive and spokesman for the coalition.

"America's space program is at a critical crossroad," Acosta said. "NASA needs a clearly defined plan and unwavering support from our president and Congress to achieve our nation's space exploration objectives."

Obama's fiscal 2010 budget proposal seeks $18.7 billion for NASA, a 5 percent increase from its current funding. Much of the additional money would pay for global warming research, which wasn't a priority under the Bush administration.

Enouldi remembers how, in 2006, one of his top deputies, James Hansen, accused the Bush administration of trying to silence him after he delivered a lecture urging reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions.

Enouldi hopes that his scientists will be freer to speak out under Obama and the next NASA chief.

"All indications are that the new administration is considering the issue of global warming with stronger urgency," Enouldi said.

Already, the next NASA administrator, barring a change in course by Obama, will oversee the longest gap between U.S. manned space launches — five years — since 1981, when the first space shuttle took off six years after a joint U.S.-Soviet launch.

The space shuttle Challenger disaster on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, mothballed the manned space program for 32 months. The shuttle Columbia disintegrated over Texas as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere on Feb. 1, 2003, putting the program on hold for another 29 months.

Bolden flew on the Columbia in 1986 and later commanded the shuttles Atlantis and Discovery.

The Atlantis, whose scheduled landing Saturday was pushed back a day by bad weather in Florida, is set to be retired next year.

The new Constellation manned space program, which Bush began almost five years ago, has suffered delays and cost overruns, and its first launch isn't expected until 2015.

Until then, the United States will have to rely on Russian spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Washington and Moscow, whose relations have worsened in recent years, have been squabbling over their shares of the space station's food and equipment costs.

Charles Bolden

Age: 62

Education: Graduated from C.A. Johnson High School, 1964; bachelor's degree in electrical science, U.S. Naval Academy, 1968; master's degree in systems management, University of Southern California, 1977

Family: Married in 1968 to the former Alexis "Jackie" Walker of Columbia, S.C.. Has two children and three grandchildren, as well as a brother, Warren, of Columbia.

Military: Commissioned as 2nd lieutenant in Marine Corps after graduating from Annapolis. Flew more than 100 sorties during Vietnam War and logged more than 6,000 hours flying time in 30 aircraft.

Space experience: Became an astronaut in 1981 and qualified as a space shuttle pilot.


Obama, Bolden discuss future of NASA

Europe is about to take an astronomical lead over U.S.

Commentary: NASA must start playing by budget rules

Related stories from McClatchy DC