Bolden seeks stability for NASA in upcoming transition

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said that while he has not had any contact with current presidential candidates, he hopes that the next administration will not make major changes to the agency’s programs.

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association luncheon here March 29, Bolden also emphasized that although he seeks stability for the agency and its workforce, he has no plans to remain as head of NASA after a new administration takes office in January.

Bolden, asked about the upcoming transition, said he has not been in contact with any of the remaining Democratic or Republican candidates for president. “To my knowledge, we’re not talking to anybody right now,” he said. “We’re staying away from the campaigns, and no one’s reached out to us.”

He said he expects that to change after the two parties hold their nominating conventions this summer. Under a recent change to federal law, the candidates can start to set up transition teams after the party conventions, even before the general election in November.

“Our intention is to welcome them with open arms,” Bolden said of those transition teams. “And if not, to go and find them, whenever we can.”

Bolden likened the advice he would give those transition teams to the Hippocratic Oath taken by physicians: first do no harm. “If you want to change something, tweak it, but whatever you do, don’t break it,” he said. “That will be my message.”

A related concern, he said, was preserving international partnerships. “We need to be reliable partners. We drive international partners berserk,” he said. “They know they can’t do anything unless we lead, and yet they don’t want to get in line behind us if they don’t know if we’re going to lead in the same direction next year.”

Some attendees found Bolden’s comments a bit ironic, given the current administration’s record on stability and international cooperation. It announced plans in 2010 to cancel the Constellation program and end NASA’s plans to return humans to the surface of the moon. That disrupted potential international cooperation efforts with countries more interested in the moon than NASA’s plans for missions to asteroids and to Mars.

It’s not the first time, however, that Bolden has called for continuity in NASA’s programs in the next administration. “If we change our minds at any time in the next three or four years, which always is a risk when you go through a government transition, my belief is that we’re doomed,” Bolden said of NASA’s Mars plans in an October 2015 speech at the Center for American Progress.

At this luncheon, he suggested international partners should be more interested in joining NASA to be the first to go to Mars rather than pursue lunar plans where they would be, at best, only second behind the United States in landing people there. “If you’ve got a chance to go to Mars, why would you want to go to the moon?” he asked.

While Bolden seeks stability for NASA and its Mars exploration plans in the next administration, he made it clear in his speech it will be under new leadership. Asked about his plans if this is his final year in office, he responded, humorously but emphatically, “What do you mean, if?”

“I want to make sure NASA’s people stay in place where they are right now and that I take care of them,” he said of his remaining priorities as administrator. “I’m trying to bring them some stability.”

“There are a lot of things I would love to see done,” he added, without elaborating what those might be. “I’m not giving up. I’ve got eight months left.”