Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and firm believer in manned exploration of space, is set to pilot NASA into a future clouded by rising costs and flagging public enthusiasm for the mission to find new worlds.
This unflappable former combat pilot, confirmed by the US Senate on Wednesday, comes to the job with extensive experience and the support in Congress of US Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a former astronaut who was a crewmember on Bolden’s first shuttle mission in 1986.
Once sworn in, Bolden, 62, would be only the second astronaut to lead the space agency and its first African-American administrator.
It would be the culmination of a career that has taken him to the heights of the US space and military establishments from a childhood in the segregated US south, where
he was born in Columbus, South Carolina on Aug. 19, 1946.
“Naval academy grad, Marine test pilot, astronaut, general — Charlie will bring back the magic from a time when we rode rockets to the moon,” Nelson said in a post on micro-blogging Web site Twitter.
As a Marine Corps fighter pilot, Bolden flew combat missions over North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.
He graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland, in 1979 and the following year was selected as an astronaut by NASA, where he held several technical and administrative posts, including assistant deputy administrator at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
His first space flight was as a pilot on the space shuttle Columbia.
Bolden piloted the Discovery shuttle that deployed the Hubble space telescope in 1990, and commanded two further shuttle missions, including a historic first joint US-Russian mission on Discovery in 1994.
That same year, he left NASA to return to the Marines, rising to the rank of major general and deputy commander of US forces in Japan before his retirement in 2003.
NASA has struggled to maintain funding for a space mission that has lost much of the glamour of its early years, and has been afflicted by rising costs and dimming public interest. Many safety questions were raised after the 2003 Columbia disaster.
“Today, we have to choose. Either we can invest in building on our hard-earned world technological leadership or we can abandon this commitment, ceding it to other nations who are working diligently to push the frontiers of space,” Bolden said in a statement after his confirmation.
“If we choose to lead, we must build on our investment in the International Space Station, accelerate development of our next generation launch systems to enable expansion of human exploration, enhance NASA’s capability to study Earth’s environment.”
Bolden would be taking up the helm at NASA as it prepares to retire the shuttle program next year.
He would have to keep the manned spaceflight program going for another five years before the first scheduled flight of the massively over-budget and glitch-marred Constellation program, which aims to lift off in 2015 and take astronauts to the moon and Mars.
Obama, who said in March
that NASA had “a sense of drift,”
has tapped a panel of experts to review the Constellation program, with recommendations due in late next month.
Bolden was previously chief executive officer of JACKandPANTHER LLC, a private military and aerospace-consulting firm.