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Obama To Name Former Marine General As NASA Chief

May 23, 2009

President Obama will name retired Marine General and former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. as NASA administrator, according to a Los Angeles times report citing three congressional sources.

If confirmed by the Senate, Bolden, who flew on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, would be the first African American to lead the space agency. 

Bolden, 62, flew more than 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War before joining NASA for four shuttle flights, two of which he commanded.  He would be the second astronaut to lead NASA.

The president is also expected to name Lori Garver, his campaign space advisor, as Bolden’s deputy, the Times said.

Bolden would assume control of NASA during a time in which the agency must redefine its mission, streamline its budget and re-define its sense of purpose.

Obama and Bolden met in the White House less than a week ago for an interview that included candid discussions about Bolden’s ties to NASA contractors and his opposition to upcoming budget cuts that Obama has implied may be necessary.

Bolden was not Obama’s first choice for the position. Earlier this year, he favored retired Air Force Gen. J. Scott Gration, one of his campaign supporters.  But Gration was ultimately rejected amid opposition on Capitol Hill.   Members of Congress, including Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), also derailed the bid of Steve Isakowitz, an Energy Department official.

But Senator Nelson has been among Bolden’s biggest supporters, with the two men having flown together during a 1986 shuttle mission.

Bolden was described Friday as a strong leader, but some are concerned that he lacks a close relationship with the president.

Michael Griffin, NASA’s previous administrator, was an outsider to the White House.  Since resigning his post in January, Griffin has complained that during his time as NASA administrator he was never able to circumvent the “unnamed staffers” in the Office of Management and Budget who consistently cut the agency’s programs.

“Clearly, Bolden does not have the relations with the president that Gration has,” Roger Launius, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, told the LA Times.

“What Bolden has is a very strong understanding of NASA culture.”

Some have also voiced concerns about Bolden’s connections to NASA contractors, which include short stint as a lobbyist in 2005 for rocket company Alliant Techsystems Inc. and as a board member for Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based GenCorp Inc.

These ties could hamper Bolden’s ability to lead NASA through its transition from the shuttle ““ set to retire in 2010 or 2011 — to Constellation, the agency’s next manned-spaceflight vehicle.

Constellation, which consists of the Ares I rocket and Orion capsule, has suffered technical problems and is billions of dollars over budget.  It is not expected to fly before 2015.

Bolden’s previous work on for Constellation contractors could become an issue given the tough ethics rules Obama put in place when he took office.  That executive order states that appointees cannot “participate in any particular matter . . . that is directly and substantially related to [a] former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.”

Bolden served on the board of directors for GenCorp until March 2008.  The company’s Aerojet subsidiary builds propulsion systems and maneuvering engines for the space shuttle and Constellation’s Orion capsule.

Many see Bolden’s nomination as a step to stabilize an agency that has lacked an administrator since January.  Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD.), who chairs a Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget, referenced Bolden’s biography.

“We think that Mr. Bolden has a very hefty background. He has a compelling personal story,” the Times quoted her as saying Thursday.

Bolden was born in segregated South Carolina, and attended high school in Columbia before graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968. He earned several honors as a military aviator, including the Distinguished Flying Cross, and flew on the 1990 shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.

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