Q&A with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

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Profile | Charles Bolden
NASA Administrator


The Administrator’s To-do List

When Charles Bolden became NASA administrator in July 2009, some doubted he would stick around Washington very long. At an industry breakfast a few months after taking office, he recalled the disillusion with politics he experienced during a stint at NASA Headquarters in the early 1990s, while the fight over the future of the space station was ongoing. He also mentioned that he initially turned down the job of NASA administrator, saying he was eventually convinced after a face-to-face meeting with President Barack Obama.

More than six years later, with roughly 15 months left in Obama’s presidency, Bolden is still on the job. Only Dan Goldin, James Webb and James Fletcher (in his combined two stints as administrator) have held the position longer.

During his time leading the space agency, Bolden has overseen the retirement of the space shuttle, the contentious cancellation of the Constellation program and its replacement with the Space Launch System and Orion, the development of commercial crew capabilities and more.

Bolden sat down recently with SpaceNews senior staff writer Jeff Foust. The following is a condensed transcript of that interview, which was published on video on SpaceNews.com.


In recent weeks, you’ve made a very strong public effort to win full funding for the commercial crew program. Have you noticed any effect of that effort, either on Capitol Hill or elsewhere?

It’s hard to say whether there’s been any effect on Capitol Hill, because the Congress has been out of session. The desired effect is full funding for commercial crew in the 2016 budget. We really won’t know until we see what the outcome is there.

In terms of response from the public and the media, it appears that people are finally beginning to understand the point that we were making, which is commercial crew is two fixed-price contracts. We have milestones for each contractor, and they’re paid per milestone. The amount we requested for the president’s budget equals the amount of the contracts. If we don’t get that amount, it means we either have to push a milestone out or we have to cancel a milestone, with the potential results being we slip the program again or that we end up, unbelievably, having to cancel and renegotiate the contracts. That would be a disaster.

NASA is starting the 2016 fiscal year on a continuing resolution, which might last a few months or the full year. What effect would that have on the commercial crew program?

We are hoping that we will get permission from the Congress to allow us to spend at a rate that would project to what we asked for in the 2016 budget. That would enable us to keep going with the companies as scheduled and enable us to fly in 2017 as we hope right now. [The continuing resolution Congress passed Sept. 30, which funds the government through Dec. 11, did not include that provision.]

It’s been a year since Boeing and SpaceX received their commercial crew contracts. Are you satisfied with the progress the two companies have made so far?

I am incredibly happy with the progress that both companies have made. I was delighted to be at the Kennedy Space Center in September when Boeing and the Kennedy Space Center celebrated the conversion of the former Orbiter Processing Facility 3 to the new Boeing commercial crew vehicle processing facility, which was just incredible. It was a big day for Boeing, NASA and the nation.

Commercial crew has been advertised as a key tool to maximize the use of the International Space Station, which NASA and the U.S. government wants to extend to at least 2024. What’s the progress in getting the other partners onboard for that extension?

We’ve now gotten Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, to formally accept 2024 as the new date for extending the International Space Station. We’ve got the Canadians. Were hoping that the European Space Agency will endorse the 2024 date soon, as will the Japanese space agency. So we’re pretty confident that we’re going to get all five of us in agreement that we should extend space station to at least 2024.

Caption: The international space station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation in 2008. Credit: NASA photo
The International Space Station as seen from Space Shuttle Discovery in 2008. Credit: NASA

Engineering reviews have cleared operations of the space station through 2028, and some people have talked about operating it even longer. How long should NASA operate the space station, and when will you know it’s time to end the program?

It’s not NASA’s determination, first of all. It is the determination of the partners, and in my meetings with my counterparts we have all decided that we will operate station as long as it is needed to help us retire the risks in two things: in terms of technology development for moving on to cislunar space and then to Mars with humans, and our human research program. All of our forecasts say that we should have that done by 2024 or 2026.

One of the things that we have done this time is, so that we don’t have a gap in human spaceflight the way we did between Apollo and shuttle and between shuttle and commercial crew, that we will not come off the station until we have established a presence in cislunar space. That means we’ve launched SLS and Orion with a crew, and we now have a crew that is capable of operating in cislunar space. Then we will start working with the partners to gradually migrate away from the International Space Station. Our forecast is that should happen in the early part of the 2020s.

We’re not staying on the International Space Station to meet a date. We’re staying there in order to be able to accomplish the objectives of preparing to get humans in the Martian environment.

The space station is part of this long-term plan to get humans to Mars called “Journey to Mars.” One of the criticisms of Journey to Mars is that there hasn’t been a lot of detail so far about how we get from here to human footprints on the surface of Mars. When might we expect NASA to start filling in some of those details?

We’ve actually been trying to fill in some of those details to the greatest extent possible for a couple of years now. We tell more and more of the story. It is my hope that once we get through this next round of budget deliberations and we’re ready for the 2017 budget to roll out, we’ll have a pretty coherent, thorough story to be told.

It will explain the reasons that we don’t make some crucial decisions like what architecture are you going to use to get to the surface of Mars. Those things are years away. Those kinds of decisions are for the next administration, maybe two administrations away. Those kinds of decisions will wait until we have the international partners in agreement as to what our objectives are on the Martian surface.

We have a pretty good idea of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. The kinds of things most people want, though, are definitions of launch vehicles and what’s the lander going to look like. It is way too early to be planning that. We don’t want to exclude anything by making an early decision.

A couple aspects of the architecture that we do know about are SLS and Orion. How close are we to knowing when those will fly on Exploration Mission 1, the first flight of SLS carrying an uncrewed Orion?

I’ve noticed that people are dwelling on first flight. First flight is critical, and it’s very important to get there, but if we get to first flight and we don’t have a sustainable program it doesn’t mean anything, to be quite honest. There are three pieces to this tale: There are the ground support systems, there’s the Space Launch System itself, and then there’s Orion. We really believe that some time in the coming year when we finish the critical design review for Orion, we’ll be ready to get the three teams together and be able to evaluate what each of the individual key decision point reviews have said, and how do they play together. So, some time in the next year we should be able to give you an idea of when the first human-rated flight will be. That’s the one I’m really looking forward to: the first crewed flight. [After the interview, NASA announced it expected Orion to be ready for its first crewed flight no later than April 2023.]

The moment of the New Horizons flyby of Pluto is celebrated at APL. Credit: SpaceNews/Jonathan Charlton
The moment of the New Horizons flyby of Pluto is celebrated at APL. Credit: SpaceNews/Jonathan Charlton

One of the big accomplishments for NASA this year was the successful New Horizons flyby of Pluto. NASA’s planetary science program has run up a number of successes in recent years, but it’s also been squeezed for funding. Is it being punished for success?

I would not say that at all. I would say exactly what you said: NASA’s planetary science program has reeled off an incredible list of successful accomplishments. NASA’s Earth science program has also reeled off an incredible number of successful accomplishments. I am most proud of our aeronautics mission directorate.

When we talk about money, we get focused on one thing we just want to talk about this week. I have an agency to run with four mission directorates. Every single one of them is critical to the success and leadership of this nation. Whether you’re talking about human spaceflight, science and its four divisions, aeronautics or space technology, I am extremely proud of the accomplishments we’ve made with the money we’ve been given. We have a budget, and my job is to make sure that we take that budget and provide a balanced portfolio. I will take on anyone who says we don’t have a balanced portfolio.

One area where you did seek more money in the budget is Earth science. There was some criticism of that in Congress. Have you won over some of those critics?

Our request for Earth science is an effort to get us back to the level of funding for Earth science that we had in the early parts of this century. We are not there yet, so we will continue to try and bring Earth science spending up to the level that we enjoyed before. We’re doing the same thing in aeronautics. We’re trying to get it to a point where it is substantially funded so we can do the various things the nation has asked us to do.

I don’t have a division in science that I think we have adequately funded, that I don’t think we have requested adequate funds for. I’m very satisfied with the level of funding that we have requested across the board because, as I’ll say again, what we’re trying to do is put together a balanced portfolio for this agency and the nation recognizing that there will never, ever be enough money for our appetite. Tell me an agency or a department that says, “I have enough money,” and I’ll tell you an agency or a department that needs a new head.

There is a perception that NASA can’t get along with Congress on issues like funding for commercial crew, SLS and Orion, and Earth science. Is that accurate?

I don’t think that’s true at all. I think Congress is very dedicated to keeping this nation No. 1 in the world. My appropriations chairs, both in the House and in the Senate, want the same thing that I want, a robust human spaceflight program, and they want a robust science program, particularly in areas like planetary science.

How we get there, or the level of funding, that’s natural for us to have differences. I think there’s a misperception that there’s this conflict between NASA and Congress. My job is to tell them what I think, what I advise the president that he should request in funding, and try to help them understand why that was my recommendation and see what we can get. Everybody knows that the president proposes and Congress disposes.

What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment in office?

I would not claim any accomplishments, but I would credit the NASA workforce. We’re not the No. 1 place to work in the federal government for nothing. We are because we have the most dynamic, innovative, incredible, motivated workforce of any other agency in the federal government.

Do you have any regrets or disappointments?

No. I don’t dwell on things that we did not do. That’s unimportant now. What is important is what NASA, working with the Congress and the administration, can do going forward to keep this nation as great as it is.

What’s at the top of your to-do list for the remainder of your time as administrator?

I don’t know how much time I have left as administrator, so let me tick off the things I want to get done. I want to see us come to fruition on commercial crew. I want to see the first test flight in the next year, year and a half. I want to launch SLS and Orion with a crew to cislunar space so that we can begin to get set up for the eventual arrival of an asteroid, or a piece of an asteroid. I want to see us help the Federal Aviation Administration enable the return of supersonic flight to the U.S. I want to see us continue to be the leaders in the world in hypersonics.

I want to see all of that before I leave as the NASA administrator. Whether I get to see all of that remains to be seen. But who knows?