Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What can we expect from Charles Bolden?

John Kelly Florida Today

Bolden has been in hiding the past few months as President Barack Obama's science team worked its way through a list of other candidates for NASA administrator. U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson has been advocating fiercely for his former shuttle crewmate and close personal friend, but Bolden's just waiting quietly.

Now, it seems Bolden will get the nod, perhaps as early as today when he sits down with Obama in the Oval Office, presumably to talk about where they'll take U.S. space policy. The White House's leak last week that Bolden is now their guy prompted no public complaints over the weekend from senators who would have to confirm him.

There are plenty of hints in the public record about Bolden's stand on the big overarching issues of space exploration.

First, Bolden is an astronaut. He would be the first astronaut to get the job since President George H.W. Bush tapped Dick Truly. Bolden is a U.S. Marine aviator who piloted two shuttle missions and commanded two others.

However, he is not a one-dimensional advocate of human exploration. In 2006, he testified before the U.S. Senate about balancing human and robotic exploration.

"Building a vehicle or set of vehicles to take humans to the moon and on to Mars without continued emphasis on the life science research to understand more fully the environmental and human factors challenges that must be overcome to successfully allow humans to survive these journeys is a certain recipe for disaster and ultimate failure," Bolden told senators.

"Similarly," he went on, "funding increased science exploration and experimentation through employment of robotic vehicles and remote sensing and satellite data-gathering without continued improvement in our ability to safely send humans beyond Earth's bounds and on to other heavenly bodies literally defeats our innate human drive and curiosity to explore the unknown and venture from this planet in search of ways to improve our lives here at home."

Bolden's on the record with the same plea as most other space-exploration advocates have used. NASA's budget is insufficient to tackle all the jobs it has been assigned: studying Earth's climate, advancing aeronautics, exploring the solar system with robotic probes and pushing the limits of human spaceflight.

One tidbit on his resume: He lobbied briefly for ATK. The launch-systems company is the lead contractor for the Ares rocket currently under scrutiny as the Obama administration reviews NASA's developing moon program.

Just about anyone qualified for this job would have a history of working for or with contractors, universities and others doing business with NASA.

Certainly, Bolden has the ear of a key influential member of Congress. Nelson, a Democrat who flew on the shuttle in 1985 with Bolden, helps lead committees overseeing NASA policy and funding. Nelson fought hard against other hopefuls the White House suggested, holding firm for his friend.

Where Bolden stands on parochial Space Coast issues such as when to retire the shuttles and how to proceed on new moon rockets probably will depend less on personal beliefs and more on orders from the White House. Marines understand orders.

It's worth noting that Bolden served on an independent safety panel that strongly recommended this year against flying the shuttles past 2010, saying it is unsafe and would drain funds needed to develop new rockets and spacecraft.

John Kelly: jkelly@floridatoday.com.

No comments: