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Bolden Is Tapped to Run NASA

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 By Andy Pasztor and T.W. Farnam, Wall Street Journal

boldenPresident Barack Obama picked former astronaut and retired Marine Corps Gen. Charles Bolden Jr. to head the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, but controversy over his background and NASA’s future direction could complicate his job.

Gen. Bolden’s nomination caps months of political maneuvering, which has left some major agency decisions in limbo. It also has become a flash point for a broad debate over how NASA should conduct future human space-exploration programs.

Gen. Bolden was a NASA official in the early 1990s and more recently worked for two major NASA contractors. His critics contend he’s too closely tied to existing NASA programs.

These people, who want to shake up the agency’s priorities, include officials of smaller aerospace firms hoping to snare NASA business and some Obama advisers likely to play a role in charting NASA’s direction. Gen. Bolden has supported some startup space ventures, but they still wanted a nominee with a more-unconventional background.

White House officials said Gen. Bolden wasn’t available for comment. In a meeting with Mr. Obama in the White House Tuesday, the former astronaut spoke about his “vision for NASA’s future,” among other topics, according to a White House statement. Before the meeting, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the president “hopes that [Gen. Bolden] is the right person to lead NASA in the coming years and through its evolving role.”

People familiar with the nomination process said Gen. Bolden has pledged to give weight to the recommendations of an independent commission recently set up by Mr. Obama to look at NASA’s future that’s expected to report back by summer’s end.

Gen. Bolden, who would be the first African-American to lead the agency, served as NASA’s assistant deputy administrator in the early 1990s and is a four-time shuttle astronaut. His nomination is expected to be approved by the Senate.

The White House announcement also said the president will nominate Lori Garver, a former top policy official at NASA who headed up the Obama administration’s transition team for the agency, to NASA’s No. 2 slot. Ms. Garver has been a strong advocate of changing NASA to help support the efforts of private space entrepreneurs, and she is also considered to be in favor of expanding research into climate change and cutting-edge concepts such as potentially using satellites with large solar collectors to help generate electricity that could be used on earth.

Lawmakers are expected to examine Ms. Garver’s consulting activities in the last few years. But since her name has been circulating on Capitol Hill for months apparently without serious opposition, at this point supporters don’t expect major challenges. The new team heading up NASA, however, won’t have the depth of engineering and technical expertise enjoyed by some previous agency leaders. And according to industry and government officials, that could make them more dependent on NASA’s existing program managers and outside experts such as the commission being assembled by the White House.

In announcing the selections earlier Saturday, President Obama said in a statement: “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.”

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the Democratic chairman of a commerce subcommittee with responsibility for NASA, has publicly and privately championed Gen. Bolden’s nomination for months. Sen. Nelson pushed the appointment despite opposition from factions in the White House, inside NASA and parts of the aerospace industry. In a statement Saturday, Sen. Nelson tried to downplay controversy over the choice partly by emphasizing that “ultimately, leadership in the space program comes from the White House.”

Sen. Nelson’s statement also said that Gen. Bolden understands “the importance of America remaining a leader in science and technology through space exploration,” even as he faces “budgetary constraints, technical issues, the remaining shuttle launches and the pending retirement of the shuttle program.”

Some White House science aides and NASA advisers are concerned delays and cost overruns could affect the next-generation manned space program, Constellation, and particularly the Ares I rocket, which is slated to start operations by 2015. Some estimates peg the total cost of replacing the space-shuttle fleet and returning to the moon early in the next decade at more than $40 billion.

Gen. Bolden could come under questioning during nomination hearings over his previous financial and business ties to two big NASA contractors for Constellation: Alliant Techsystems Inc. and GenCorp Inc. Alliant, also known as ATK, builds the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle and is working on Ares I. GenCorp’s Aerojet unit has a contract for another part of Constellation, and also builds parts of boosters for military rockets under consideration for use by NASA.

Gen. Bolden, who was also an ATK lobbyist for three months in 2005 and served on GenCorp’s board from 2005 to March 2008, has most recently worked as a consultant.

Mr. Obama’s restrictions on former lobbyists taking certain government jobs wouldn’t apply to Gen. Bolden, as his stint at ATK took place more than two years ago. Nor would Gen. Bolden be prohibited from deciding the fate of major projects at the agency under Mr. Obama’s new ethics rules, ethics lawyers said.

New ethics rules would require Gen. Bolden to recuse himself from making decisions concerning specific contracts for the two companies.


Written by Symphony

May 23, 2009 at 5:19 pm

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