With the White House announcement over Memorial Day Weekend that Charles Bolden and Lori Garver will serve as administrator and deputy administrator of NASA, President Obama has chosen a path that will serve the space agency well, given the troubling political and economic realities facing America today.
His choice of Charles Bolden soothes some of the more traditional and conservative elements of the space community, given Bolden’s service as an astronaut, fighter pilot and experience with the major aerospace contractors. Pacified will be the all-important Texas community, and certainly Bolden’s time at Johnson Space Center will provide solace to those who until now have been skeptical of Obama’s commitment to manned space exploration.
At the same time, the president has certainly signaled since assuming office that NASA is, understandably, far down the list of the priorities he faces each and every morning. Given his inability to watch over and spend political capital on America’s space program, the choice of Bolden catapults into a key position a determined congressional supporter for NASA - Sen. Bill Nelson.
The Florida Democrat just kept on going and going, like the Energizer Bunny on steroids, in his determination to ensure Bolden’s selection. Well, Bill Nelson now has his man in place and the White House can expect strong congressional support for the space agency.
Yet Obama’s NASA is not solely traditionalist in being lead by a former astronaut. Also in place are strong and intelligent supporters of innovative commercial space programs, with the likes of Lori Garver and George Whitesides and Alan Ladwig as political appointees setting policy.
All of them have fought for unleashing the private sector and revamping NASA’s static positions with industry. They arrive at the agency with hands-on experience in the entrepreneurial space sector.
Garver’s determination to be an astronaut lead her to undertake a commercial effort to fly, and shows her dedication to personal spaceflight. She has been underestimated many times, but has maintained a laser-like focus in her determination to affect change in the U.S. space program. Now she has that chance. All told, never before has top NASA management had so many members of what has become known as the “New Space” community.
But Obama and the White House staffers have put into place yet another balancing force in recalibrating our space program, and that is the Human Space Flight Review lead by aerospace veteran Norm Augustine. It would not be surprising if Augustine’s influence remains front and center long after the committee has issued its recommendations.
These multiple forces reflect, I believe, a White House unsure of the terrain and unable to focus on what to do with the space program. The process took far too much time, but in the end the White House left it to us, the space community, to select the future direction of America’s space program.
Although I fear we could end up with a compromise situation, as we did with the space shuttle program and with the International Space Station, all the players on the stage understand what went wrong and what worked in the past.
The time has never been more conducive for putting in place an American space program that allows free range to the full creativity of our society. Let’s not blow this chance.