Charles F. Bolden, U.S. President BarackObama’s pick as NASA administrator, comes with solid qualifications for the position. A retired U.S. Marine Corps major general and former astronaut, Mr. Bolden has technical expertise, toughness, experience managing large organizations and intimate knowledge of the agency he has been chosen to lead. In addition to having flown four space shuttle missions – two as pilot, two as commander – Mr. Bolden did a stint at NASA headquarters in Washington as assistant deputy administrator. His military resume boasts more than 6,000 hours of flying time in a variety of aircraft, including more than 100 combat missions over Vietnam, and tours of duty as commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, deputy commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy – he graduated from the school in 1968 – and deputy commander of U.S. Forces, Japan.

With these credentials and no apparent blemishes on his record or issues that might give
lawmakers heartburn, Mr. Bolden’s confirmation by the U.S. Senate seems all but assured. In fact, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Commerce space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee and could preside over the confirmation hearing, has long made clear his desire for Mr. Bolden to get the job. Mr. Nelson played a key role in derailing the president’s first two choices: retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Jonathan Scott Gration, an Obama adviser and confidante; and Steve Isakowitz, the U.S. Department of Energy comptroller who previously served in senior positions at NASA and oversaw NASA programs while at the White House Office of Management and Budget. U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, also has weighed in with support for Mr. Bolden and for Lori Garver, Mr. Obama’s pick for deputy NASA administrator.

Mr. Bolden’s selection comes not a moment too soon – NASA has been without a permanent administrator since the Jan. 20 departure of Mike Griffin, who was not asked to stay on by the new president. While such a situation is never ideal, it is highly problematic under the current circumstances, with NASA in the midst of replacing the space shuttle with a new astronaut launching system. The agency’s chosen design for that system is now the subject of an independent review ordered up by the White House.

That it took Mr. Obama so long to name Mr. Bolden, even after it became clear that his first two choices faced congressional opposition, is puzzling; it’s not like Mr. Bolden, who would be NASA’s first African-American administrator, lacks for name recognition in space policy circles. In addition to raising troubling questions about where NASA resides on Mr. Obama’s priority list, the White House’s foot dragging has fueled speculation that the president and Mr. Bolden do not see eye to eye when it comes to human spaceflight.

While there is no clear evidence that this is the case, it is reasonable to expect that Mr. Bolden will be an advocate of human spaceflight, an area where the administration’s budget profile does not quite match its public statements. While the White House continues to pay lip service to the previous administration’s goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, acting NASA Administrator Chris Scolese has told lawmakers the administration’s five-year budget blueprint is not sufficient to make that happen.

Mr. Bolden’s brief tenure as a lobbyist for AlliantTechsystems – he says he was improperly identified as such – and more recently as a member of the board at GencorpAerojet, also may have given the administration pause given its strict ethics rules. If this was an issue, it has been resolved to the president’s satisfaction. And while it is bound to come up in the confirmation hearing, it should not become a roadblock: to remove from consideration all candidates with financial ties to the space industry would be to severely limit the pool of qualified candidates to run NASA.

In the coming months, all eyes will be focused on the independent review of NASA’s post-shuttle human spaceflight plans and architectures, the preliminary results of which are expected this summer. Led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, the review panel may be hard pressed to revalidate NASA’s current plan – regardless of technical merit – in the current budgetary environment.

The role Mr. Bolden will play in shaping the White House’s response to the Augustine panel’s recommendations is unclear: People tend to forget that the NASA administrator’s job is to execute space policy, not make it. But Mr. Bolden may find himself in the position of being the first line of defense for a healthy and robust
human spaceflight program – one that does not once again consign its astronauts to repetitive trips to and from low Earth orbit.

Mr. Bolden has demonstrated he can deal with and overcome adversity – not just as a Marine Corps combat pilot but also in finding a way to win an appointment to the Naval Academy after growing up in a segregated South Carolina. He’s going to need that proven fortitude and resourcefulness to successfully steer NASA through what promises to be an extremely challenging budget environment in the years ahead.