WASHINGTON - Former astronaut Charles Bolden, picked by President Barack Obama to become the next NASA administrator, told lawmakers Wednesday that the agency must re-ignite American interest in the space program, akin to the excitement over the moon landing and even the initial shuttle years.
During his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Bolden said the key would be finding ways to get young students interested in science and engineering.
"If I go to a classroom today, it's different than when I went as an astronaut in 1980," he told members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
"I could ask, 'How many of you want to be an astronaut?' Every hand went up in the class. When I go to a school today and ask that question, I may see three hands. All of them want to go into business."
Bolden received widespread and effusive support from lawmakers, indicating an easy confirmation for the retired Marine Corps general.
He also had a large cheering section in the audience and in a nearby hearing room set up to handle the overflow: Several dozen of Bolden's friends and family members traveled by chartered bus to attend the confirmation hearing.
Although he now lives in Texas, Bolden was introduced by the two Republican senators from his home state of South Carolina.
"The president of the United States has chosen very wisely," said Sen. Lindsey Graham. Bolden "is the right man at the right time, with the right skills it takes and character."
Bolden, 62, would become NASA's first black administrator.
He said that as he was being raised in the segregated South, his race initially hindered his ability to attend the Naval Academy because his congressmen refused to appoint anyone who was black. Ultimately, Bolden met a retired federal judge who was recruiting minorities for military academies. A lawmaker from Chicago eventually nominated Bolden.
"If anyone represents a characteristic that we admire - that being the characteristic of an overcomer - Charlie is that," said Sen. Bill Nelson, the Orlando Democrat who flew with Bolden on a 1986 shuttle mission. Nelson also lobbied the White House to pick Bolden.
Bolden's nomination comes at a critical time for NASA. The shuttles are scheduled to be retired next year, and a White House panel is reviewing the Constellation program, which is slated to replace it.
"Does NASA really have a future?" said the committee's chairman, Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va. "People refer to what has been done. Very few refer to what might be done.
"I need bolstering on NASA, personally," he said. "It's drifting. I think that's indisputable. So what do you plan to do to change this?"
Bolden said he wants the agency to pour more resources into research and development.
The committee must still vote on Bolden and Lori Garver, who was nominated to be Bolden's deputy. Their names would then be forwarded to the full Senate for a confirmation vote.
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- Video - NASA's Constellation Journey Begins: Part 1, Part 2
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