WASHINGTON — NASA has named Robert Lightfoot director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the former propulsion engineer has served as the center’s acting director since March.

“I’m very pleased to appoint Robert as the Marshall Center Director,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in an Aug. 24 news release. “As NASA moves into an exciting new era of human and scientific exploration, Robert’s skills and expertise will prove invaluable to leading Marshall into the future.”

Lightfoot previously served as deputy director at Marshall, where NASA is developing the Ares 1 launcher and Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket central to the agency’s goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2020.

A former NASA official said Lightfoot is a man of integrity and experience who can lead the next generation of scientists and engineers.

“I think the agency is lucky to have him,” said Scott Pace, a former NASA colleague of Lightfoot who now serves as director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University here. “I could see a more traditional NASA arguing for someone with more seniority, and there are certainly other qualified people, but Lightfoot is the kind of guy who can take the next generation and lead it, so at Marshall it’s a good choice.”

The Alabama native earned his bachelor’s degree in 1986 and began his NASA career at Marshall in 1989 as a test engineer and program manager for the space shuttle main engine technology test bed program and the Russian RD-180 engine testing program for the Atlas 5 launch vehicle.

Ten years later, Lightfoot was chief of propulsion test operations at NASA’s Stennis Space Center near Bay St. Louis, Miss.

From 2003 to 2005, Lightfoot did at stint at NASA headquarters here as assistant associate administrator for the sapace shuttle program.