Obama's Pick for NASA Chief May Win Quick Senate Approval
2006 Astronaut Hall of Fame inductees Charles Bolden, Hank Hartsfield and Brewster Shaw pose together at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Image

WASHINGTON ? Key members of the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee are clearing the way for swift confirmation of four-time space shuttle astronaut Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, the president's pick to lead NASA. Congressional aides say a confirmation hearing for Bolden, as well as former NASA Associate Administrator Lori Garver ? the White House pick for the space agency's No. 2 slot ? could be scheduled as early as the week of June 8.

One congressional aide said May 28 that Bolden's strongest ally on Capitol Hill, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), has asked the committee to schedule "something in the next two weeks." The Senate Commerce Committee's top Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, said the panel would move quickly to confirm the nominees.

"I believe the [Senate] Commerce Committee will move expeditiously to consider this nomination, and that of the nominee for Deputy NASA Administrator, Lori Garver, upon receiving their paperwork," Hutchison said in a May 23 statement.

The White House nominations, announced in a May 23 press release, garnered widespread praise on Capitol Hill. NASA observers said President Barack Obama's selection of Bolden is a boon to the space agency's goal of furthering manned spaceflight and returning Americans to the Moon at the end of the next decade. Many expect Bolden, who knows first-hand of NASA's effort to explore and understand the universe, to be a strong advocate for the space agency's $8 billion-a-year human spaceflight program. As a retired Marine Corps general, Bolden is seen as an inspirational figure who has overcome adversity early in his career, and who is expected to bring an ethic of service to NASA's top post. 

Some political observers nonetheless speculate that Bolden's past ties to NASA contractors could come up during his confirmation hearing. In the summer of 2005, Bolden briefly worked as a consultant for Minneapolis-based Alliant Techsystems (ATK), the company that builds the solid-rocket boosters for the space shuttle and which is prime contractor for the main stage of the Ares 1 crew launch vehicle, a key component of NASA's planned shuttle replacement system. More recently, Bolden served on the board of Sacramento, Calif.-based GenCorp, the parent company of Aerojet, a rocket and in-space propulsion firm that competes against ATK and others for NASA business. Bolden left the board in March 2008 having earned nearly $88,000 during his last full year of service.

In January, the White House issued an executive order on ethics that, among other things, prohibits former lobbyists in the administration from working on issues they previously promoted, or at agencies they lobbied during their previous two years of employment.

John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum here, says that because Bolden's involvement with ATK occurred prior to Obama's two-year window for former lobbyists, it is only of minor concern. However, Bolden's tenure on the board of GenCorp may have raised some questions within the administration. Consequently, there may be "some limited waiver where he doesn't get involved in GenCorp and ATK procurement decisions," Logsdon said.

While few question Bolden's and Garver's qualifications to lead NASA's front office, some said their nomination ? and the lengthy vetting process that preceded it ? illustrate how Obama's self-imposed constraints can keep experienced, technical managers from joining his administration.

"This is a problem with the ethics rules when it comes to technical issues," said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute here. "The community of really technically qualified experts in any particular field can be very small, and thus it can be difficult to find experts who don't have a potential for conflict."

In Bolden's case, the former astronaut and retired Marine general entered the private sector during a period when companies were encouraged to err on the side of caution, registering employees and consultants as lobbyists even in cases where such activity might be limited. Bolden, in fact, protested his registration as a lobbyist by ATK during his brief service there in 2005, according to a Sept. 8, 2006, letter filed with the Senate Office of Public Records.

ATK spokesman George Torres said Bolden was among a handful of astronauts the company paid to meet with lawmakers in Washington during the summer of 2005 to provide "the operator's perspective" on using space shuttle hardware to build a shuttle successor. The visits coincided with a 60-day study under way at NASA that ultimately produced the shuttle-derived Ares 1 and Ares 5 rocket designs.

Garver, too, may have to answer for her ties to the space industry. After serving as a NASA associate administrator for policy and plans during the Clinton administration, Garver cashed in her NASA and political connections as a senior adviser for space at Avascent Group, a strategy and management consulting firm here. And while Garver does not register as a lobbyist, her consulting work for numerous contractors seeking NASA business could raise questions. In addition, lawmakers could take issue with Garver's husband, David Brandt, who works for Lockheed Martin Space Exploration, NASA's biggest contractor. Sources familiar with Brandt's work say it is limited to education and management activities associated with the company's Center for Space Exploration, a demonstration and exhibit facility located in Arlington, Va.

Political observers said the NASA nominees' past work with industry could require that they recuse themselves from working on specific procurements. But in Bolden's case, some type of a presidential waiver is likely since a blanket recusal from anything having to do with Aerojet ? a second-tier contractor with hardware on a panoply of NASA programs ? would prove too constraining.

"I expect to see [the waiver issue] come up in the confirmation hearings," said Pace, who held senior posts at NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under former President George W. Bush. "Some very limited and focused waiver may be necessary, but from what has been reported that would seem to be a minor issue."

It is no secret that Bolden was not Obama's first choice for NASA administrator. Earlier this year the president settled on retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott Gration for the top job, though several key lawmakers, including Nelson, opposed his nomination. Steve Isakowitz, chief financial officer at the Department of Energy and a former senior NASA manager, was another presidential pick derailed on Capitol Hill.

Some NASA observers assert the administration's nomination process was complicated by Garver, who emerged early as a top choice for the deputy administrator position after advising the Obama campaign on space matters and leading the president's NASA transition team. One source inside NASA attributed the lag in filling the top slot at NASA to White House concerns about Bolden's service on corporate boards, including that of a company, Bristow Group Inc., accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of bribing Nigerian officials. The Houston-based helicopter services firm settled in 2007 without admitting wrongdoing.

But the NASA source also said Garver's appointment was an obstacle because the "nominee was required to accept Lori as deputy."

While some view Garver's appointment as a White House attempt to position a loyal advocate in the No. 2 job, others said they do not believe she is being installed as a minder for NASA's top official. Howard McCurdy, a NASA historian and professor of public affairs at American University here, says that while there may be a precedent for positioning White House loyalists in NASA's No. 2 job, Garver is likely not playing that role.

"There has been a history of putting a White House advocate in the deputy's position to watch over the administrator," McCurdy said, citing the appointment of former NASA Deputy Administrator William Graham during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. Graham was a physicist with close ties to conservative White House staff members but had limited experience with civilian space prior to his appointment. His nomination was opposed by then-NASA Administrator Jim Beggs and other senior NASA staff.

"That was a real case in which the White House wanted somebody in NASA to watch over the administrator," McCurdy said. "But I don't think [Garver] is playing that role. She was an adviser to the campaign all along, and she represents the White House in that respect, but there is not a White House agenda being imposed on the agency."

Brett Lambert, a managing partner at DFI International (since sold in part to Avascent) when the defense and aerospace consulting firm hired Garver in 2001 to lead its space work, said Garver's skill set ? knowledge of the space industry, Washington, and the inner workings of NASA ? should complement Bolden's military and manned spaceflight background.

"With Lori, you have someone who knows how the sausage is made," Lambert said May 29. "Between the two of them, you've got a good team, as long as they are comfortable with one another."

Pace agrees.

"When you're picking a team for the front office, you want managerial skill, technical skill and political connectivity," he says. "Charlie has the technical and managerial background, and Lori has the political and policy background, so between the two of them, it should be good."

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