Obama picks former astronaut to lead NASA

Charles F. Bolden Jr., a former combat pilot, Marine Corps major general, and veteran space shuttle commander, is the Obama administration's choice to lead NASA.

William Harwood
Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.
William Harwood
6 min read

Nineteen years after helping launch the Hubble Space Telescope, Charles F. Bolden Jr. has been nominated by President Obama to serve as NASA's next administrator.

Bolden, a former combat pilot and Marine Corps major general, is also a veteran space shuttle commander.

Lori Garver, a former NASA associate administrator for policy and plans and a space policy adviser to the Obama campaign, will serve as Bolden's deputy.

"These talented individuals will help put NASA on course to boldly push the boundaries of science, aeronautics, and exploration in the 21st century and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program," Obama said in a statement Saturday.

Charles F. Bolden Jr. in a NASA space shuttle crew photo. NASA

Bolden, the third African-American to fly in space, had met with Obama at the White House on Tuesday, the day the Hubble Space Telescope was relaunched from the shuttle Atlantis. The five-spacewalk overhaul marked NASA's fifth and final visit to the storied telescope since Bolden helped launch it in 1990.

An announcement naming Bolden, 62, as Obama's candidate to head the civilian space agency came four months after the departure of former administrator Mike Griffin, a rocket scientist appointed by the Bush administration to oversee the shuttle's 2010 retirement and a planned return to the moon.

"The president could not have made a better choice," Griffin told CBS News. "Charlie Bolden is an accomplished pilot, a veteran astronaut, and an old friend. He has spent his life in the service of his country, and our nation is the better for it. NASA will be in good hands."

The Obama administration struggled to find an acceptable replacement after deciding not to ask Griffin to stay on, reportedly considering several candidates before settling on Bolden.

Insiders pleased
Widely respected within NASA for his engineering judgment, leadership skills, and no-nonsense approach to thorny technical issues, Bolden's appointment was broadly welcomed by space agency insiders.

"I can't imagine anybody that would be a better choice than Charlie," said Jay Honeycutt, former director of the Kennedy Space Center. "He knows the business of flying in space, as well as knows how to navigate his way around Washington. He has a good relationship with Congress, as well as the guys in the administration."

John Logsdon, space policy analyst at George Washington University and a member of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, called Bolden "an extremely good choice." "First of all, he's not that much of an outsider to Washington. He's been on the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel and the National Academy of Engineering space board, so he's really up to speed with what's going on with the program," Logsdon said.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., flew with Bolden during a 1986 shuttle flight and has been lobbying Obama for weeks to put Bolden in charge of NASA at a particularly critical time in the agency's history.

"In all the problems that are facing the president, it's hard to get attention on this one little agency," he told CBS News. "He certainly hears it from me, but he'll hear it then from his own administration (after Bolden is confirmed). And I believe then we've got a chance of getting us really back into the glory days."

In a statement released Saturday, Nelson said that Bolden will face "budgetary constraints, technical issues, the remaining shuttle launches and the pending retirement of the shuttle program. And, restoring the wonder that space exploration can provide, and to make sure the president's mission is carried out."

"Charlie is the kind of dynamic leader I believe the president was looking for and I know he'll meet these challenges head on," Nelson said.

Challenges ahead
NASA is struggling to complete the International Space Station during the final eight shuttle missions between now and the end of 2010. At the same time, the agency is trying to develop a new rocket system for the Bush administration's Constellation program, which is aimed at resuming moon flights in 2020.

The Constellation architecture, calling for development of a new heavy lift unmanned Ares 5 booster, a lunar lander, and a smaller Ares 1 rocket to boost Orion crew capsules into orbit, has come under fire from critics who claim alternative rocket systems can be developed faster at lower cost.

Complicating the political picture, the Ares 1/Orion system intended to replace the space shuttle will not be available until 2015, forcing NASA to buy seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry U.S. astronauts to and from the space station. Griffin repeatedly warned Congress about this so-called "gap," but the money needed to accelerate development of Ares 1/Orion never materialized.

The Obama administration's first budget supported the Constellation program in general, endorsing shuttle retirement in 2010 and a return to the moon by 2020. But the administration's 2010 budget, while boosting near-term NASA funding, slashed spending by $3.1 billion between 2011 and 2013. If that money is not restored, Ares 5 development will suffer and landings on the moon will be delayed if not eliminated.

Earlier this month, Obama ordered a 90-day independent review of NASA's manned space program headed. Options for how best to proceed will be presented to the administration later this summer. Depending on what the Augustine commission determines, some or all of the lost money could be restored to NASA's long-range budget.

Or none at all.

Despite the uncertain outlook, Nelson said he doubts Constellation will go away.

"That's just not going to happen," he told CBS. "You're not going to throw away four years of work on the Ares. So I'm not concerned about that. I think the Augustine commission will bless the Ares. The thing I am concerned about is to what extent Ares 5 will be rapidly developed so we can end up doing the lunar lander here and all of that on a target for 2020. And a lot of that's going to come out of the Augustine Commission.

"Even though we've got this concern, that the numbers are lean in the out years, I still have some optimism about us increasing that," Nelson said. "I think politics will play a part of it, because candidate Obama will be a candidate again in 2012 and I think Florida will be important. Florida will be bigger then, it will be 29 electoral votes and I believe...they'll pay attention to us. So I'm concerned, but I'm not panicked about the out years."

Bolden's shuttle history
Bolden's first space flight came when he and six crewmates, including Nelson, took off aboard the shuttle Columbia on January 12, 1986. It was the last successful shuttle mission before Challenger's fatal January 28 launch.

Bolden took off a second time on April 24, 1990, when he served as pilot of the shuttle Discovery to ferry the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.

It is a given in the astronaut office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston that any flight assignment is a good flight assignment. But the Hubble Space Telescope, one of the most expensive civilian satellites ever built, was in a class by itself, and Bolden clearly relished a chance to play a role in the showcase mission.

"Astronomy captivates everybody," he said in an interview at the time. "A kid in the ghetto, a kid on the farm, everybody at one time or another happens to glance up at the nighttime sky and they see these things we call stars and every once in a while a planet.

"You'd just have to be a non-human being not to go 'what the heck is that?' It has a fascination for everybody."

Bolden flew in space a third time as commander of the shuttle Atlantis for an atmospheric research mission that took off March 24, 1992. His fourth and final space mission was a historic flight as commander of the shuttle Discovery in 1994, a mission that included cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, the first Russian to fly on a space shuttle.

The Russian space program is now critical to NASA, providing the transportation to and from low-Earth orbit while the U.S. agency develops its shuttle replacement.