Editorial: The Politics of Running NASA

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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden is awash in controversy these days, which is a bit strange for someone who has had so little to say since taking the job. Some 15 months into his tenure, Mr. Bolden has yet to make the rounds with U.S. media; during public appearances with reporters present he has largely stuck to prepared remarks before being whisked away by handlers. Perhaps his most famous press encounter was during a visit to Egypt this summer, when he suggested to the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television network that one of his principal missions was to engage and inspire the Muslim world. U.S. President Barack Obama’s critics had a field day with that gaffe, for reasons that had far more do with politics than actual policy.

The latest dust-up surrounding Mr. Bolden concerns his trip to China, which has drawn heavy fire from that country’s congressional detractors including U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who, depending on how the Nov. 2 elections turn out, could find himself in charge of the House subcommittee that funds NASA come next year. These critics are strongly opposed to any cooperation with the Chinese in human spaceflight, which, while on Mr. Bolden’s discussion agenda, is hardly something that’s in danger of happening anytime soon.

What’s puzzling about this episode has been the silence from the White House, which set the stage for the exploratory discussions following President Obama’s state visit to Beijing last fall for talks with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. In a joint communiqué, the two sides agreed to mutual visits by the heads of their respective space agencies: “The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit. Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA Administrator and the appropriate Chinese counterpart in 2010.”

Mr. Bolden of course is not the first NASA administrator to visit China: Mike Griffin made the trip in 2006 — notably with little visible controversy — and in a recent interview described the experience in mostly positive terms. “Our team planted the seeds for scientific cooperation, and allowed each side to gain a bit of insight into the other’s perspective,” he said, though he noted that NASA’s request to visit China’s human spaceflight facilities was declined. “I hope that this subsequent visit by a new Administrator will prove more fruitful in that respect.”

The White House, asked whether it had approved Mr. Bolden’s visit, declined to comment, possibly because it simply didn’t want to add any more fuel to the controversy. Still, the White House could at least have made clear that Mr. Bolden wasn’t going to China on his own initiative. If the administration changed its mind in the last year and no longer thought Mr. Bolden’s trip was a good idea, surely it could — and should — have stopped him from going: The NASA administrator serves at the pleasure of the president.

By its silence, the White House has left a clear impression that it does not have Mr. Bolden’s back. If anything, it appears the White House is trying to distance itself from the administrator, as was evident in September when it gave him a minor but public slap on the wrist following a report by the NASA inspector general’s office that Mr. Bolden inappropriately consulted a company to which he has business ties on an agency matter. Certainly he showed poor judgment in that instance — although the inspector general determined that no laws were broken — but if the only thing the White House ever has to say about an embattled appointee is critical, that’s not a good sign.

Running NASA is never an easy job, but Charles Bolden was dealt an exceptionally difficult hand by this administration: His primary job has been to get behind and sell to a highly skeptical Congress a dramatic change in direction for NASA’s human spaceflight program, one that abandons the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon and puts the private sector in charge of transporting crews to and from the international space station. Its flaws notwithstanding, the previous plan won overwhelming bipartisan congressional support in two separate NASA authorization bills; while there was ample reason to believe the White House would propose changes in its 2011 budget request, lawmakers clearly were taken aback at the magnitude of those changes. This is reflected in the NASA authorization bill recently signed into law, which directs the space agency to immediately initiate heavy-lift rocket and deep space crew capsule programs that were not in the budget request.

Mr. Bolden has dutifully accepted blame for the ham-handed unveiling of the new NASA plan, but the culpability really lies with those in the White House who get paid for their political savvy. Washington politicians and their appointees often go to great lengths to portray themselves as outsiders; Mr. Bolden carries no such affectation: He’s uncomfortable in this environment and it shows.

Given the circumstances, Mr. Bolden might not have been the best choice to be NASA administrator; he certainly wasn’t the first choice. He has stumbled, badly in some instances, but he hasn’t gotten much help from the White House, which seems content to have him serve as a lightning rod for criticism. He deserves better. The White House needs either to give Mr. Bolden some visible moral support or to find a qualified replacement who’s better suited and willing to deal with the politics that go hand in hand with running the U.S. space agency.