President Obama has nominated Charles Bolden, a former shuttle commander and Vietnam veteran, to become NASA's first African-American administrator at a time when the space agency is facing major challenges.
Obama on Saturday also announced that he was nominating Lori Garver to be NASA's deputy administrator. Garver was Obama's NASA transition chief and is a former associate administrator at the agency.
The president says the nominees will help put NASA on course to "boldly push" the boundaries of science, aeronautics and exploration in the 21st century.
If the Senate confirms Bolden, he would be the second astronaut to take the space agency's helm.
Now the chief executive of JackandPanther LLC, a military and aerospace consulting firm, Bolden, 62, grew up in South Carolina during segregation.
A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Southern California, he flew more than 100 sorties over Vietnam as a Marine Corps aviator in 1972-73.
He became an astronaut in 1980 and flew in space four times — twice as shuttle commander. He later served as assistant deputy administrator at NASA headquarters in Washington. Bolden left NASA in 1994 and retired from the Marine Corps in 2003 as the commanding general of the Third Marine Aircraft wing.
Already he's got a major advantage in the confirmation process: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., a key member of the committee that will review Bolden's nomination, is a former crewmate. The two flew a shuttle mission together in 1986.
In a statement, Nelson described Bolden as an ideal chief for a space agency in transition.
"Charlie is a patriot, a leader and a visionary who understands the workings of NASA and the importance of America remaining a leader in science and technology through space exploration," Nelson said.
Others share that assessment. Bolden has "broad interests, a quick mind and. .. is a great team-builder, Joseph Dyer, who has worked with Bolden on NASA's independent safety panel.
Obama is tapping Bolden to take charge of an agency that the president views as troubled. In March, Obama described NASA as suffering from "a sense of drift." In another indication of concern, the White House earlier this month announced the creation of an independent panel to evaluate NASA's manned-spaceflight program. The panel is to present its findings in August or September.
Among the challenges Bolden will confront:
•The troubled plan to build a new rocket and a moon capsule. The new spacecraft have fallen behind schedule and have technical problems.
•The retirement of the space shuttle, now scheduled for 2010. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-Fla., are pressuring NASA to extend the shuttle's life, but that would cost billions extra.
•The International Space Station, now nearing completion at a cost of roughly $100 billion. NASA has no plans to fund the station after 2015, which irks the other nations that helped build and fund the orbital laboratory.
One well-known space policy expert, John Logsdon of George Washington University, said the decision to appoint an outside panel to study the future of manned spaceflight means Bolden won't have a free hand at NASA.
The White House "will choose a course and tell NASA, 'Now, go do it,' " Logsdon said.
That will not be an unfamiliar situation to Bolden, said former astronaut Guy Gardner, who trained with Bolden in the 1980s. Even generals such as Bolden have their authority curtailed, Gardner said, and Bolden has spent enough time in lower posts at NASA that he's wise to the ways of Washington.
Kathryn Sullivan, who flew two shuttle missions with Bolden, says the former commander has the "strength of character" to impose major change on an organization. "You'd be hard pressed to find someone better," she said.
Bolden's service in the corporate world could draw scrutiny, especially given the Obama administration's determination to avoid conflicts of interest. After leaving NASA in 1994, Bolden was a lobbyist in 2005 for ATK, a company that makes parts for the shuttle and for the new rocket NASA is building. He also served on the board of GenCorp, the parent company of Aerojet, another major NASA contractor, from 2005 to 2008.
That shouldn't rule Bolden out, Logsdon said. "This is a small community," he said. "To find someone who's qualified and doesn't hold industry ties … is not so easy."