Exclusive: Space News Interview with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

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Less than a year after being tapped by U.S. President Barack Obama to run NASA, Charles Bolden was tasked with dismantling a space shuttle replacement and lunar exploration program that had been approved by two separate Congresses in favor of a commercial approach to astronaut transport and technology development aimed at changing the economics of deep-space exploration.

Obama’s plan received a decidedly cool reception on Capitol Hill; lawmakers passed a bill, which was signed into law, that requires NASA to continue developing key elements of the previous program, Constellation, including a crew transport vehicle and a shuttle-derived heavy-lift launcher. Dubbed the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, the bill also supports, in principle, Obama’s plan to nurture development of commercial systems to take crews and cargo to the international space station.

But the bill sets only general funding guidelines for the U.S. space agency; lawmakers have yet to pass a 2011 appropriations bill that pays for the new mandate. Until at least March 4, NASA will be operating under a so-called continuing resolution that funds its programs at the levels appropriated for 2010, when Constellation was still viewed as the future of the agency’s human spaceflight program.

Despite these and other challenges, “I’m really excited about my day job,” insists Bolden, a former space shuttle pilot and retired U.S. Marine Corps major general.

Bolden spoke recently with Space News staff Writer Amy Svitak.

Congress has directed NASA to develop a government-owned crew transport system while nurturing similar capabilities in the commercial sector. Does this stretch NASA’s resources too thin?

I don’t think it stretches our resources too thin at all. If you look at the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 signed by the president, it specifically supports development of a commercial program for access to low Earth orbit and it implicitly designates NASA to do exploration. So those are the two tracks that I like to tell people when you talk about dual track. Access is to be provided under contract to commercial entities; exploration we’re supposed to handle in partnership with commercial entities again. So I think the authorization act gives us the direction to do that and the funding to do it.

But NASA’s own experts, in an interim report to Congress, said the funding authorized for the heavy-lift rocket and multipurpose crew capsule is insufficient. 

The interim report that we turned in Jan. 10 was in fact an interim, and it did not say we could not. We are a can-do agency so we did not say we could not do what [Congress] told us to do in the authorization act. I told the Congress we are doing everything we can to carry out a robust exploration program. That’s what the president wants, that’s what I want.

The interim report featured a specific heavy-lift vehicle design. Given that NASA is still studying options for a heavy-lifter, how likely is it that the design will change when the final report is delivered to Congress later this year?

We presented baseline reference vehicles, and ideally if we can find a way to make it happen, the baseline reference vehicles will be the vehicles of the future. If we can’t, then we will come back with alternatives that we will have developed through coordination with industry and the Congress. So my hope is we’ll make this thing firm, but I can’t say that right now.

How are your plans evolving relative to what you rolled out last February with the 2011 budget request?

I would refer you to the president’s speech on April 15 at the Kennedy Space Center. That became the new baseline, so I don’t even go back to the budget rollout because that’s moot. The new baseline is what the president announced in Florida. And that was getting to Mars by 2030, getting to an asteroid by 2025 and that’s it.

NASA’s Human Exploration Framework Team, or HEFT, concluded that the president’s goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid in 2025 is unrealistic. What now?

I wouldn’t go and say we can’t do anything just yet. And I have to remind everyone the HEFT is something that’s being done for me and I chose to share it with the public. I don’t want people to put too much stock in the HEFT report. It is not something that Congress asked for; I asked for a process that would take everything that the agency wants to do in terms of exploration and figure out how we can do it most efficiently given the assets that we have. So HEFT hasn’t told us we can’t do anything because I didn’t ask them to tell me that.

What is NASA doing to operate in a leaner way given the current fiscal mood in Congress?

We’re looking at the way we do business, looking at new processes for procurement and acquisition. We are involving much more robustly the commercial entities in our decision-making process and have started to include the international partners. With access to low Earth orbit, I have handed that off to the commercial entities and I am devoted to that and committed to that, and my job is to do the best that I can to facilitate their success. Because we need them, they need us — it’s a partnership and it benefits the country. It’s moving the country forward in terms of reboosting the space industry. It’s moving the country forward in terms of invigorating kids’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math. When I talk to guys like SpaceX [Space Exploration Technologies Corp.], college students are running to them because they see a place where experimentation and trial and error are done again the way they hear their parents talk about what we used to do in NASA.

For how long do you expect NASA to rely on Russia for space station crew transport after the space shuttle retires this year?

I don’t want to hazard a guess. What I would do would be to refer you to the commercial entities and get an opinion from them. That’s where I would go. That’s my partner, and I would bring them in with Bill [Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA space operations] and Doug [Cooke, associate administrator for exploration systems], and say, “OK guys, based on what you’ve seen so far, based on the milestones you’ve met, what’s your best guess for when we’re going to be flying again the way we did before?”

Cost growth on the James Webb Space Telescope is threatening funds for other astronomy missions. Given that cost growth and delays occur on nearly all flagship-class missions, should NASA revert to the “faster, better, cheaper” mission mantra of the Dan Goldin era?

Our situation with James Webb — no one is as angry as I am about that. However, there have been no decisions on other programs as a result of what we found with James Webb. I have made some significant management changes in the program. [NASA Associate Administrator] Chris Scolese is my representative to oversee the totality of this program, and we’re working with NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to see what impact it will have down the road on other programs. But we’ve not made any adjustments to other programs based on James Webb. I was never a person who believed in the faster, better, cheaper mantra. And so you’re not going to hear me go back to faster, better, cheaper.

If you had to name one mission area most adversely affected by the continuing resolution, which one would it be?

We are constrained by a number of things. We’re constrained by the language in the fiscal 2010 appropriations act and we’re working with the Congress to get relief from that. But until we get relief from that, that’s a constraint. There are always budgetary constraints with anything, but that’s life.

What was your impression of China’s space program and capabilities following your visit to Beijing last year?

You remember when I came back I said I went in a listening mode. I delivered a message in three phrases: If there were to be any future collaboration between our two nations in human spaceflight, there would have to be transparency in everything that they did, there would have to be reciprocity in terms of what we each do in exchanging, for example, data with each other, and it would have to be mutually beneficial for both.

Did you see a lot of technology we could benefit from there?

Technologically there is no huge push that says we have to work with the Chinese.

Are the Chinese eager to cooperate with the United States in space?

You’d have to ask them; I don’t know. Stay tuned for the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao later this month when he meets with President Obama, and that may give all of us an indication of how eager they are to work with us. Right now I sit back and wait for the State Department to tell me where they think we should be going.

Fair or not, the impression around town is that you’re not accessible to the media and that the White House keeps you on a very tight leash. How would you respond?

I would have to say if you write an article about this interview then it means that I have been accessible to you. You wrote an article about my sit-down at Orbital Sciences Corp. several weeks ago. I would encourage people to look at what I’ve been doing and stop listening to people saying I’m not doing something. I do have a day job and I am really excited about my day job. I love the people with whom I work and I try to spend time with them so I am not always in Washington.  I just ask people to indulge me when I go to meet with my NASA employees who happen to be places other than here in Washington.