Obama Picks Charles Bolden As NASA Chief

President's pick Charles Bolden is a former astronaut and Marine general.

May 27, 2009— -- Charles F. Bolden Jr., President Obama's choice to head a struggling NASA, has been in high places before. He spent 14 years as an astronaut, from 1980 to 1994, flying four space shuttle missions, including two as commander.

But a question of celestial proportions looms. Can Bolden, who spent so much time and effort as a shuttle pilot, bring NASA new life, now that the shuttles are being retired?

People who know him praise him as a natural leader and a nice, level-headed man.

He came from the Marine Corps, flew 100 sorties as a pilot in Vietnam, remained on duty during his astronaut years, and returned there after his final space flight, rising to the rank of major general before retiring in 2003. He spent 34 years in the military.

"He has the people skills and the technical skills to get the job done," said Leroy Chiao, a former astronaut who has served on advisory panels with Bolden -- and was chosen to be an astronaut by a panel on which Bolden served. "He knows how to read people, and mold them into a team."

Bolden happens to have been on the crew of the shuttle mission that released the Hubble space telescope into orbit in 1990. The crew of the shuttle Atlantis just finished refurbishing the Hubble for the last time.

'Long-Term Vibrancy'

President Obama, announcing the appointments of Bolden and his deputy, Lori Garver, said, "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."

That may sound like standard Washington rhetoric, but for NASA, "vibrancy" is perhaps the key issue.

The agency has wandered, looking for new direction ever since the Apollo astronauts went to the Moon 40 years ago.

Robotic probes, such as the Mars rovers, have been successes that caught the public imagination. But the Space Shuttles have turned out to be delicate and expensive, and the International Space Station (ISS) cost $100 billion.

Assuming the Senate confirms him, these will now be Bolden's headaches.

Back to the Moon? New NASA Chief

In 2004 after the shuttle Columbia was destroyed, President George W. Bush proposed a new "vision": that the shuttles be retired and replaced with a new fleet of ships, called Constellation, that would be used to return NASA to its original purpose of space exploration.

Constellation spacecraft were supposed to start carrying astronauts in 2014, take them to the moon by 2020, and eventually on to Mars. But five years and $6 billion later, they're behind schedule, and the Ares I rocket -- derived from the shuttle's solid-rocket boosters -- is plagued with technical problems.

Would Bolden be willing to turn in a new direction? After leaving the Marine Corps, he worked for two aerospace firms that are building components for Ares.

"On what grounds could anyone object to Bolden?" said Bob Park, a physicist at the University of Maryland who has often been critical of NASA. "He has only one serious flaw: He is a former astronaut."

"Can Bolden rise above his astronaut background?" asked Park in an e-mail to ABC News. "Could this be like Nixon going to China? Only a former astronaut could take the steps necessary to move NASA away from the expensive and unproductive man-in-space program. Is Bolden the one?"

The Obama White House has already ordered a special panel to review the Constellation plan, and decide whether it is on the right track. One question before it is whether to abandon the Ares rocket, and instead use other existing boosters.

Bolden was born on Aug. 19, 1946, in Columbia, S.C. He attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis before becoming a Marine officer. He would be the first African American to lead NASA, and only the second astronaut to hold the job on more than an interim basis.

Most previous NASA administrators have either been engineers or had previous experience at government agencies.

Bolden is a former consultant on space issues for ABC News, and continued, up until the White House announcement, to consult for ABC's Houston affiliate, KTRK-TV. He told KTRK he has been asked by the White House not to give interviews until after his Senate confirmation.

One of Bolden's biggest backers in Washington has been Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew with Bolden on a space shuttle mission in 1986.

"He'll be facing budgetary constraints, technical issues, the remaining shuttle launches and the pending retirement of the shuttle program," said Nelson, "and restoring the wonder that space exploration can provide."