Nominees Promise a More Relevant NASA
Charles Bolden, nominee for Administrator of NASA, testifies at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 8, 2009. Lori Garver, nomine for debuty NASA chief, is in foreground.
Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

WASHINGTON - In their first public appearance, the two people appointed by President Barack Obama to lead the U.S. space agency said they would put a greater emphasis on aeronautics, Earth science, and research and development in a bid to make NASA relevant again to the American public.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden and former NASA associate administrator Lori Garver emphasized the role that commercialization and international cooperation would play under their leadership during a July 8 confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. They lauded the multilateral partnerships achieved through work on the International Space Station and pledged to build upon that investment.  

In his opening remarks, Bolden - a former space shuttle commander - also said he would "accelerate with a sense of urgency the development of a next-generation launch system and human carrier to enable America and other spacefaring nations of the world to execute the mission of expanding our human exploration beyond low Earth orbit."

Neither Bolden nor Garver, however, specifically mentioned Orion and Ares I, the roughly $35 billion capsule and rocket NASA is developing to ferry crews of astronauts to the station and eventually launch them on their way to the moon.  

Orion and Ares are supposed to make their crewed debut in March 2015, but many U.S. government and industry officials doubt NASA can make that date. With the space shuttle slated to retire in 2010 after completing its final eight missions, NASA will fly its astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles and is banking on commercial systems now to take care of resupplying the station. 

Warm Reception  

Bolden, the first African American appointed to NASA's top job, was warmly welcomed by some half-dozen lawmakers - including three Republican senators claiming him as a native son of South Carolina and his adopted home state of Texas. Seated in the packed hearing room and watching the proceedings on television in a nearby room were friends and family of Bolden's who came by charter bus to witness his appointment.

Once the hearing was under way, Bolden and Garver faced pointed questions from Senate Commerce Committee Chairman  John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who characterized NASA as an agency gone "adrift" since the glory days of the first Apollo Moon landing 40 years ago this month. "Does NASA really have a future?" Rockefeller asked. "People refer to what has been done. Very few refer to what might me done. I need bolstering on NASA, personally ... it's drifting. I think that's indisputable. What do you plan to do to change this?"

Rather than respond directly to Rockefeller's question, Bolden read from his prepared opening statement in which he pledged to invest more in NASA research and development, embrace international cooperation, open the door to commercial enterprise and inspire new generations to enter the science and engineering fields.

"I would like to see NASA as the pre-eminent [research and development] agency in the United States," he said, adding that a lack of investment in basic science and technology has allowed some areas, including aeronautics, to "wither on the vine." 

Garver said she and Bolden had discussed opportunities to partner with other countries and to encourage commercial development that could stimulate the U.S. economy.

"Investing in NASA has led to new industries entirely independent of government funding that have contributed greatly to the U.S. economy," she said, particularly in the field of aeronautics.

Garver also praised the space station program for opening up new relationships abroad and said the United States should consider expanded cooperation in robotic and human spaceflight. 

Road ahead

In the meantime, with the United States and its partners on the verge of finishing construction of the space station, Garver said one key to ensuring a solid scientific return on the investment involves "developing a transportation system that can get to and from the space station more economically and more efficiently so that many of these experiments, whether they're commercial or governmental, can be done more regularly." 

Bolden also emphasized the importance of the commercial sector to NASA's plans. "The government cannot fund everything that we need to do, but we can inspire and open the door for commercial and entrepreneurial entities to become involved, to become partners with NASA."

At press time the Senate had not scheduled a vote on the nominations, though congressional sources said they expect Bolden and Garver to be confirmed before the Senate's August recess begins August 10. Despite Rockefeller's dim view of the space agency, the chairman expressed confidence in both nominees' capabilities and said he will support their confirmation.

Nominated as a pair in May, Bolden and Garver are poised to take office during a summer in which a White House charter panel is taking a fresh look at NASA's human spaceflight plans in order to lay out by mid-August a set of options for the way ahead.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), assert the agency has been starved for funds, and hope the panel, led by former Lockheed Martin Chief Executive Norm Augustine, will call for additional resources. In chartering the panel, however, the White House made clear it was looking for ideas that fit within NASA's current $18 billion-a-year budget profile, about half of which goes to human spaceflight and exploration. 

Nelson, an early backer of Bolden who flew with him on a 1986 space shuttle mission, said he is confident Bolden and Garver will demonstrate effective leadership, provided President Obama takes a direct interest in NASA. 

"If the president will give that leadership and not let the [White House] Office of Management and Budget run NASA ... I think this team will do that," Nelson said.