Nominees Promise a More Relevant NASA

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. (Image credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls))

WASHINGTON - Intheir first public appearance, the two people appointed by President BarackObama to lead the U.S. space agency said they would put a greater emphasis onaeronautics, Earth science, and research and development in a bid to make NASArelevant again to the American public.

RetiredU.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Charlie Bolden and former NASA associateadministrator Lori Garver emphasized the role that commercialization andinternational cooperation would play under their leadership during a July 8 confirmationhearing before the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.They lauded the multilateral partnerships achieved through work on the InternationalSpace Station and pledged to build upon that investment.  

In hisopening remarks, Bolden - a former space shuttle commander - also said he would"accelerate with a sense of urgency the development of a next-generationlaunch system and human carrier to enable America and other spacefaring nationsof the world to execute the mission of expandingour human exploration beyond low Earth orbit."

NeitherBolden nor Garver, however, specifically mentioned Orion and Ares I, theroughly $35billion capsule and rocket NASA is developing to ferry crews of astronautsto the station and eventually launch them on their way to the moon.  

Orion andAres are supposed to make their crewed debut in March 2015, but many U.S. governmentand industry officials doubt NASA can make that date. With the space shuttleslated to retire in 2010 after completing its final eight missions, NASA willfly its astronauts aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles and is banking on commercialsystems now to take care of resupplying the station. 


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

Once thehearing was under way, Bolden and Garver faced pointed questions from SenateCommerce Committee Chairman  John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) who characterizedNASA as an agency gone "adrift" since the glory days of thefirst Apollo Moon landing 40 years ago this month. "Does NASA reallyhave a future?" Rockefeller asked. "People refer to what has beendone. 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 todo to change this?"

Rather thanrespond directly to Rockefeller's question, Bolden read from his preparedopening statement in which he pledged to invest more in NASA research anddevelopment, embrace international cooperation, open the door to commercialenterprise and inspire new generations to enter the science and engineeringfields.

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

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

"Investingin NASA has led to new industries entirely independent of government fundingthat have contributed greatly to the U.S. economy," she said, particularlyin the field of aeronautics.

Garver alsopraised the space station program for opening up new relationships abroad andsaid the United States should consider expanded cooperation in robotic andhuman spaceflight. 


In themeantime, with the United States and its partners on the verge of finishing constructionof the space station, Garver said one key to ensuring a solid scientificreturn on the investment involves "developing a transportation system thatcan get to and from the space station more economically and more efficiently sothat many of these experiments, whether they're commercial or governmental, canbe done more regularly." 

Bolden alsoemphasized the importance of the commercial sector to NASA'splans. "The government cannot fund everything that we need to do, butwe can inspire and open the door for commercial and entrepreneurial entities tobecome involved, to become partners with NASA."

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

Nominatedas a pair in May, Bolden and Garver are poised to take office during a summerin which a White House charter panel is taking a fresh look at NASA's humanspaceflight plans in order to lay out by mid-August a set of options for theway ahead.

Somelawmakers, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), assert the agency has beenstarved for funds, and hope the panel, led by former Lockheed Martin ChiefExecutive Norm Augustine, will call for additional resources. In chartering thepanel, however, the White House made clear it was looking for ideas that fitwithin NASA's current $18 billion-a-year budget profile, about half of whichgoes to human spaceflight and exploration. 

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

"Ifthe president will give that leadership and not let the [White House] Office ofManagement and Budget run NASA ... I think this team will do that," Nelsonsaid.

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SpaceNews Staff Writer

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.