Bolden Talk Yields Insights More Personal than Political

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WASHINGTON — In a speech delivered to U.S. lawmakers and aerospace industry representatives Oct. 8, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden revealed little about the space agency’s future but spoke volumes about his current state of mind.

Faced with making a critical recommendation to U.S. President Barack Obama in the coming weeks that will shape human spaceflight for decades, the retired Marine Corps general and former astronaut admitted he is averse to Washington’s political climate, implied he does not trust Beltway insiders and insisted he never wanted to be NASA’s top official.

“When the president asked me to take this job, I told him I didn’t want this job,” he said, eyes welling with tears during an Oct. 8 industry breakfast on Capitol Hill sponsored by the Space Transporation Association. Nodding to his nearby chief of staff, George Whitesides, Bolden said the top aide “gets upset” when he relates the anecdote. “I really don’t care what signal it sends. I did not want this job.”

After meeting with Obama in May and hearing his inspiring tale of watching Apollo astronauts splash down in the Pacific near his childhood home, Bolden was compelled to take the post. Now, nearly three months into a tenure he acknowledged might be brief, the Vietnam veteran and decorated naval aviator says he is uneasy with Washington power brokering.

“I am not going to get used to this culture,” he said. “I don’t want to get used to this culture. But if you will allow me to do the job that you asked me to do, I will do it. And I will do it well.”

Bolden said his distaste for Beltway politics stems from an eight-month stint in the early 1990s during which he served as NASA assistant deputy administrator.

“It was the worst eight months of my life,” he said, recalling a narrowly won effort to garner congressional support for the international space station. “And that was one of the reasons that I didn’t want to come back to Washington, was because it was a horrible experience.”

Disillusioned by his brush with political sausage-making, Bolden said the experience gave him insight into the parochial motivations of U.S. elected officials.

“Nobody wakes up in the morning saying ‘I want to see how I’m going to screw NASA today,’” he said. “Every single one of you loves this country.”

Bolden recognizes congressional concern over NASA’s future, which hinges on the findings of a White House-appointed panel tasked with reassessing plans for manned space exploration. The panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, delivered a summary of its report to senior administration officials Sept. 8. The summary concluded that absent more money, NASA’s Constellation program — a four-year-old effort to replace the aging space shuttle with the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket — is not sustainable. Although the panel included Orion and Ares 1 among a handful of options for the future, several alternative architectures were put forth — all of which require additional investment on the order of $3 billion a year above the president’s 2010 budget profile for NASA.

I’ve had conversations with all of you in the House and I know your concerns,” Bolden said. “And I’ve had conversations with the Senate, and I know their concerns. And I think I can make a difference. But, I can’t do anything if we don’t change the way we operate.”

Since the Augustine panel delivered a summary of its findings to senior NASA and White House officials Sept. 8, Bolden said he and his senior management team have been “migrating” toward a recommendation to the president. But Bolden said the decision is Obama’s call.

“I would love to tell you where we’re going, but it’s not my prerogative,” he said. “That’s the president’s prerogative.”

Bolden said the report might be released while he is out of the country. He is scheduled to attend the 60th International Astronautical Congress in Daejeon, South Korea, the week of Oct. 12.

“We’re hoping that the final report will be issued sometime within a week or two,” he said. “Personally, I’m hoping not. I’m going to be in Korea next week. I would hate to be out of the country when it’s issued, but that may happen.”

Although NASA and White House officials have remained mum on the panel’s findings, Bolden assured the audience that his team is devoting ample time to reviewing them.

“I know you all haven’t heard anything, but we’ve been working pretty hard,” he said. “I know you’re frustrated. Let me tell you, I’m frustrated. But that’s just the way the process works around here.”

Bolden said he meets regularly with senior managers — about nine hours a week — to discuss the Augustine committee findings. He said an agency position is beginning to take shape, but took issue with the Augustine panel’s approach, suggesting that NASA’s recommendation will be based only in part on the panel’s options.

“[We are] asking why do we risk human life in the exploration of space, and how is the best way to do that,” Bolden said, noting that the Augustine panel’s intensive 90-day review instead focused on architectures that could fit within, or come close to, Obama’s 2010 funding profile.

“You know, when you get stuck with architecture, then you can do bad things,” he said. “You really want to find out why you want to do something and then ask yourself if this is what we want to do, how do we best accomplish it.”

Bolden said his team has answered these questions, and is now in the process of reviewing potential architecture options to recommend to the president. Bolden said that, given a budget, he preferred to focus first on “the why” of space exploration, rather than specific architectures that fit within the annual budget.

“That’s the way we chose to do it, but you can do it all kinds of ways” he said of his management team’s effort to date. “You can back into it. I happen to be one that doesn’t like backing into it when you start with a budget, and say ‘Okay, how much will this buy you?’ Because then you get some of the bad things that we’ve squandered money on. If you’re not doing it for a reason, I think you ought not to be doing it. And if the reason is, well, we’ve got this much money … I can’t handle that, to be quite honest.”