Former astronaut looks like Obama's choice to head NASA

A leading candidate for the top job at NASA is a former astronaut who would be the first African-American to head the space agency.

Obama is scheduled to meet Tuesday with Charles Bolden, 62, to talk about the open position at NASA, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday. Bolden, a retired Marine Corps major general who flew on the space shuttle four times, is described as a gifted leader who knows how to listen and motivate others.

Bolden has "broad interests, a quick mind and … is a great team-builder," said Joseph Dyer, chairman of NASA's independent safety panel, which also includes Bolden as a member.

Leadership is needed at NASA, which Obama described in March as suffering from "a sense of drift." The administration is so concerned that earlier this month, the White House announced that an independent panel would evaluate NASA's manned-spaceflight program. The panel will present its results in August or September.

Among the problems bedeviling the agency:

•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.

The formation of the independent panel means that Bolden — if chosen by Obama and confirmed by the Senate — would not have a free hand at NASA, said John Logsdon, a George Washington University space-policy expert.

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.

Bolden already has an advocate in Washington: Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who flew on the shuttle with Bolden in 1986. Nelson also heads the Senate committee that will oversee Bolden's confirmation hearing.

Other crewmates of Bolden's also speak well of him. Though he's not a heavy-handed commander, Bolden has the "strength of character" to impose major change on an organization that needs to shape up, said Kathryn Sullivan, who flew on the shuttle with Bolden twice.

"You'd be hard pressed to find someone better," she said.

One potential problem is Bolden's service in the corporate world. After leaving NASA in 1994, he 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."