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New NASA Administrator Will Have His Hands Full

Charles Bolden will have to address some immediate questions about the future of America's space program.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

May 29, 2009 - 12:00 am

The Obama administration has quietly announced its long-awaited nominee to head the nation’s space agency. Assuming that he is confirmed by the Senate, Marine Major General (Ret.) Charles Bolden, a veteran ex-astronaut with four shuttle missions under his belt, will be NASA’s next administrator and, like the president who appointed him, its first African-American one.

His credentials are beyond question, other than the concern about having another astronaut head the agency given the history of the last time that happened. In the early 1990s, former administrator Dick Truly actively lobbied against the Space Exploration Initiative on the Hill, defying his own president, George H. W. Bush. He was fired for his troubles and replaced by Dan Goldin. But it’s a logical fallacy to draw a grand conclusion from a single sample, and Bolden should — and will — be given the benefit of the doubt on that score. There are also concerns that he lobbied for ATK, which stands to benefit from the status quo on NASA’s current plans, being the contractor for the first stage of the Ares launchers. But his activity in that regard was in the past and seems to have been minimal.  If anything, there may even be a bad relationship between them.

The biggest concern for some, including me, is his previous close relationship with George Abbey, former head of the Johnson Space Center. He reportedly ruled the Center with an iron fist, overstaffing the office and often pitting its members against each other using shuttle flights as the currency of the realm. I’ve criticized his recent policy positions as not being consonant with the goal of creating a spacefaring civilization in the near term. We can only hope that this past relationship will not mean that Abbey will be a power behind a Bolden throne. I’m certainly willing to grant him the benefit of the doubt for now.

His deputy administrator will be Lori Garver, the former head of the National Space Society, a former NASA associate administrator for plans and policies during the Clinton administration, and long-time space policy advisor to Democratic presidential nominees, including John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. She won’t be the first female deputy administrator — that was Shana Dale, who served under the last administrator, Dr. Mike Griffin.

Reportedly, the administration wanted to make the announcement with some “hoopla,” planning the ceremony for last Friday after the most recent shuttle mission was scheduled to safely land from its spectacularly successful upgrade and repair of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Unfortunately, the weather in Florida didn’t cooperate, and both the landing and the announcement were put off until Saturday, the first day of a holiday weekend. That plan went awry as well. When the bad weather continued, the administration decided to wait no longer and made the announcement Saturday anyway. Many consider this uncharacteristically bold, on the assumption that they didn’t want to make a high-profile space announcement and then have the orbiter kill another crew the next day. (The vehicle landed safely on Sunday in California.) In retrospect, it might have been better and much more high-profile to have made the announcement at the International Space Development Conference, which is scheduled for this coming week in Orlando, Florida and is sponsored by the organization that Ms. Garver used to head.

It was actually a fairly prompt appointment for this particular position. Most administrations have taken longer to find a NASA administrator. But it seemed more important to those concerned with the space program, because it is in a state of high flux and many decisions must be made soon. It’s a particularly challenging time because the incoming administrator will have to await the result of the new Augustine Commission that will provide recommendations on the fate of the shuttle, the Constellation program, and space transportation to support human exploration in general. Bolden will be starting his job at a very uncertain time, both technically and politically, and will not necessarily be able to chart his own course.

In fact, there are rumors that the meeting with the prospective NASA head and the president didn’t go all that smoothly — that the president proposed that it might be necessary to cut the human space flight budget, given the economic times in which the country finds itself (though administration critics would point out that much of this is due to the president’s own budgetary profligacy). A four-time shuttle astronaut could hardly be expected to take over an agency that was going to shut down NASA human space flight, nor could the incoming deputy, given her own history as the former head of a major public advocacy group for the human settlement of space. So at least they presumably believe that the nation will not retreat from human space flight during this administration.

The big question, of course, is how to do it and not break the budget.

There is abundant irony in the situation (as is often the case with space policy). The shuttle, whose landing was going to have been synchronized with the announcement, had repaired the telescope that prospective administrator Bolden had delivered almost two decades earlier as a shuttle pilot. The mission  demonstrated, once again, the versatility of humans in space for meeting, grabbing, repairing objects, and the assembly of systems on orbit. The space station is almost complete, demonstrating the ability to assemble large structures. But the current NASA plans for future exploration beyond earth orbit, under investigation by the Augustine commission, completely turn their back on this capability and abandon it, putting in place a system that will have no such capability. Instead, it will feature an architecture that relies on launching everything needed for a lunar expedition in a launch or two, regressing our capabilities to those of four decades ago, the last time we went to the moon.

Let’s hope that this new administrator, unlike the last one, wants to look to the future and not replicate the past at great expense. Let’s hope that he wants to build a true “interstate highway system” for space and provide a direction that meets the Aldridge commission requirements of supporting free enterprise, national security, affordability, and sustainability. And let’s hope he is in favor of  opening up space to not just a few NASA astronauts a couple times a year at outrageously high costs to the taxpayer, but to the rest of us as well.

Good luck, general.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his weblog, Transterrestrial Musings.
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