Former shuttle commander picked to lead NASA

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."

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