Congress, NASA, White House

Soon is a relative term – or maybe not

One NASA-related highlight of the House Science and Technology Committee hearing that features John Holdren was his statement that a nominee for NASA administrator could be announced “soon”, as he said at one point in response to a question. Later, he said:

I also have some reason for optimism that the President will be nominating a permanent administrator for NASA very shortly, and that that will help put at least that concern to rest, because I think it will be an outstanding person. The President’s concern has been to get the right person for that job. That fact that we don’t have one until now is not for lack of effort.

That may sound promising, but it’s not the first time we’ve heard such statements. Holdren told Nature he hoped to have “a new administrator in place in the next month”—in an interview a little over a month ago, for example. And President Obama himself said he planned to make a pick “soon”—in comments back in March. So initially it was hard to get one’s hopes up too much about this.

But this time the value of “soon” might indeed be measured in days, rather than weeks or months. NBC News reported late this evening that the administration will nominate Charles Bolden after a White House meeting on Monday. (The article says that Bolden will be “appointed”; the position of administrator requires Senate approval, so it would only be a nomination.) The news comes from a source kept anonymous “because there was no official authorization to speak about it publicly”.

If true, though, (and keeping in mind that this is not the first time a nomination was said to be imminent) Bolden would be an interesting choice. After all, Sen. Bill Nelson has been pushing for him since Bolden’s name first surfaced in connection with the job in January, even while the Obama Administration considered other candidates, some of whom were reportedly rejected by Nelson and other members of Congress. Bolden would likely have a smooth, and possibly very rapid, confirmation process in the Senate, barring an unforeseen problem or anonymous hold. However, why would the administration wait until now to nominate Bolden? Had they run out of other potential candidates? Did they strike some kind of understanding with him and/or Nelson? And what does the nomination say—if anything—about the independent review of NASA’s human spaceflight programs led by Norm Augustine that’s starting soon?

14 comments to Soon is a relative term – or maybe not

  • sc220

    It seems likely that the Administration wanted to make sure that General Bolden was supportive of the Augustine assessment. No doubt, he would have to be in favor of it, since it is one of the first major space-related decisions made by the new Administration.

    Although Bolden has to be supportive of human spaceflight, he has had close ties with George Abbey in the past. This was noted by anonymous.space on this site back in January. I would be very surprised if Abbey and Bolden didn’t agree on many points regarding the future of human spaceflight.

    Bolden definitely has the background to challenge and evaluate the current status quo.

  • Al Fansome

    SC220: Bolden definitely has the background to challenge and evaluate the current status quo.

    Does he?

    I am not so sure.

    Jeff started a thread in January that Charlie Bolden might be nominated.

    See:
    http://www.spacepolitics.com/2009/01/06/griffin-out-bolden-in-maybe/

    In that thread, it was disclosed that Charlie Bolden was a registered lobbyist for ATK on the stick. The Washington Post reported on this here:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/24/AR2005082402015.html

    Astronauts Turn to Lobbying

    It seemed like a natural fit: pairing a company that manufactures space shuttle booster rockets with astronauts. That is just what ATK Thiokol Inc. has done.

    According to their lobby registrations, retired astronauts Daniel Barry, Franklin Chang-Diaz , Thomas Jones , retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden, retired Navy Capt. Daniel Bursch and retired Air Force Col. John Blaha will help ATK Thiokol “with an education campaign on the design considerations of the next generation NASA launch vehicles, in particular the shuttle-derived concepts through visits with members of Congress and other key decision makers.”

    “They, more than most experts, have a clear understanding of the need for safety and simplicity in our vehicles and propulsion systems,” Mike Bender, an ATK-Washington Operations official, said in an e-mail response to questions about the lobby registrations.

    Bolden and Barry said they were happy to help when asked by Scott Horowitz, a former shuttle commander who is now an official of ATK Thiokol.

    Bolden said it was easy to support the company and its rockets because “we lived it. It is systems we know and feel comfortable with.”

    I separately commented in the same thread …

    http://www.spacepolitics.com/2009/01/06/griffin-out-bolden-in-maybe/

    “I agree that Charlie is a rock-solid A-1 guy that has a good head on his shoulders. But a key fundamental is missing here — we need a “change agent”. I have zero evidence that Charlie is a change agent. In fact, I have a lot of evidence that *suggests* that Charlie is an agent of the status quo.

    1) Charlie is a Georgy Abbey-acolyte and a long-time friend of George. George is almost certainly part of the campaign supporting Charlie. Recently Georgy Abbey published a white paper proposing to stop the termination of the Shuttle.

    This is completely status quo.

    2) Senator Nelson is an agent for the status quo. Senator Nelson is obviously lobbying for Bolden. (It is obvious that Bolden has not been selected, as he has not been called yet by the transition team. But Sen. Nelson is talking to the newspapers about Bolden. Thus Nelson is publicly lobbying for Bolden.)

    Senator Nelson would love to keep flying the Shuttle longer.

    3) Charlie is a Shuttle astronaut. This is evidence of status quo.
    Picking somebody because they are an “astronaut” is a really bad idea. As a general rule, being a Shuttle astronaut should be seen as a evidence against any candidate being a change agent.”

    FWIW,

    - Al Fansome

  • Jim Piccard

    The concern about the Abbey influence is real. Abbey switched parties in recent years – Republican to Democrat – when he saw the way the wind was blowing, to maintain his influence.

    The concern here is that this White House probably thinks it can appoint a Deputy NASA Administrator to counter any Abbey influence; to keep Charlie “honest” (not to imply he’s dishonest; he isn’t); and to let the WH (ie, OSTP, OMB) know if anything funny is happening. That won’t work; and I’m not sure they realize it won’t work.

    John Holdren was picked as Obama’s head of OSTP for lots of good reasons. However, I’m starting to see reports that he’s really knowledgeable about ‘space issues’. We need to make sure we don’t give him an expertise he doesn’t have. In terms of understanding space science priorities, he’s an excellent pick, particularly given the priorities of the Administration in other areas. BUT, his constant talking about ‘balance’ between manned and unmanned spaceflight harks back to another era, in terms of trying to understand what the basic policy issues are. And he has no understanding, from what I’ve seen, about the internal problems and influences that have controlled NASA even over the past 15 years; which would be alright, if he were staffing OSTP in such a way to cover those areas he doesn’t have a feel for. I’m not sure he is.

    If asked who the person running NASA from ’92 to ’02 was, whom would Holden answer? If he said ‘Dan Goldin’, he’d be incorrect. John needs on his staff some uber-experienced NASA or ex-NASA folks who are still reformers at heart and will be able to recognize when games are being played and needed Agency reforms being circumvented; people who will know what questions to ask so the White House doesn’t end up in 4 years with the same exact Agency they’ve got now. Right now, the status quo folks especially in Houston, are happy.

    That’s a cause for concern.

  • Major Tom

    “Although Bolden has to be supportive of human spaceflight, he has had close ties with George Abbey in the past. This was noted by anonymous.space on this site back in January.”

    Just to be clear, the main message of my earlier post was that I was on the fence about Bolden (and remain so). If Bolden is appointed NASA Administrator, the key question in my mind is which Charlie Bolden shows up in the Administrator’s suite.

    On the one hand, Bolden was Abbey’s right-hand for a number of years towards the end of Abbey’s tenure as JSC Director. Bolden and Abbey also started a business together after Abbey was finally forced out. If Bolden followed in Abbey’s mold, then we could anticipate a multi-year extension of Space Shuttle flights, the deferment of any replacement for ISS operations to the second term of the Obama White House (at least), no additional NASA support of (and possible retrenchment in) commercial human space flight, and the indefinite deferment of a NASA human space exploration capability beyond LEO to after the Obama Administration.

    After leaving NASA, Bolden also spent some time as an ATK lobbyist. If Bolden remained loyal to ATK, then we could anticipate that Ares I would continue forward in some form until mounting costs, schedule delays, or technical failures were so out of control that the White House would have to revisit (again).

    On the other hand, Bolden was Sean O’Keefe’s pick for Deputy Administrator. If Bolden followed in O’Keefe’s mold, then we could anticipate major reforms in the human space flight program, turning over more routine jobs (crew and intermediate cargo lift to LEO) to existing (EELVs) and emerging (COTS) vehicles, so NASA can concentrate its resources on actual exploration activities and innovation (heavy lift or in-space propellant, transport beyond LEO, surface systems, science support, ISRU, etc.).

    Bolden has also served as commander of major military support operations. If he brought that experience to NASA, then we could anticipate a leaner, meaner, human space flight program at NASA (as well as the NASA institution overall).

    Personally, I’d prefer the latter (a Bolden in the O’Keefe/military mold) over the former (a Bolden in the Abbey/ATK lobbyist mold). But although I’ve been in a room with Bolden on a couple occasions, I have no insight into which Bolden would show up in the Administrator’s suite.

    A few other, potential reservations about Bolden…

    On the couple of occasions that I’ve been in the room with him, Bolden did not strike me as the brightest bulb in the room. But I wouldn’t necessarily judge someone on such a limited basis (and such hearsay isn’t worth much anyway).

    I’d also point out that unless the next NASA Administrator is politically connected and powerful (and unlike O’Keefe, Bolden would not be such an Administrator), they will be constrained to a large degree by the findings and recommendations of the Augustine review. I would have second thoughts about anyone who accepts the Administrator’s post before they know the results of the Augustine review — I’m not sure I’d hire someone who would take a job without knowing what the job is going to entail.

    Also, I usually have reservations about catapulting astronauts into senior NASA management positions (e.g., Horowitz). That’s partly because they tend to lack significant program development and management experience and partly because they tend to view human space flight as an all-important, self-licking ice cream cone, paying little attention to other important programs at NASA and doing little to reform, innovate, and make NASA’s human space flight program affordable and relevant to the nation today. There are exceptions to this rule, but I’m not sure Bolden is such an exception.

    Finally, all these musings may be for naught — NASAWatch is indicating that an appropriator (I’m guessing Mikulski) is not going to let Bolden’s nomination go forward, anyway.

    FWIW…

  • CharlesInHouston

    The reservation I have is: will Charlie Bolden allow George Abbey to slither back into a position of influence? Charlie is a wonderful guy but Abbey is a guy we all want to keep on travel to France, permanently. George has always loved France for some reason.

    And don’t underestimate Charlie – he is really sharp. But his persona of “just an old softie” can cause you to not treat him seriously. For instance he does tend to cry in public when he talks about things that he feels strongly about. It is a bit disconcerting to see a Marine general officer, a Shuttle commander, and guy with the resume of Charlie Bolden – and see him shed what seems like a very sincere tear.

  • Major Tom

    “John Holdren was picked as Obama’s head of OSTP for lots of good reasons. However, I’m starting to see reports that he’s really knowledgeable about ’space issues’.”

    Whatever one’s opinions may be about Holdren’s positions in other areas, I would _not_ underestimate his comprehension of, or interest in, the issues facing NASA. Holdren has a BS and MS from MIT in aeronautical and astronautical engineering, and he’s obviously been personally involved in the search for a NASA Administrator. Moreover, OSTP’s rapid movement in getting the Augustine review kicked off indicates that Holdren quickly grasped the desperate situation on Constellation and its implications, in combination with Shuttle retirement, for ISS, future NASA human space flight programs, and NASA’s other programs.

    “John needs on his staff some uber-experienced NASA or ex-NASA folks who are still reformers at heart and will be able to recognize when games are being played and needed Agency reforms being circumvented; people who will know what questions to ask so the White House doesn’t end up in 4 years with the same exact Agency they’ve got now.”

    Agreed, and Holdren does not have such staff currently.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “Holdren has a BS and MS from MIT in aeronautical and astronautical engineering…”

    Natch… I meant to add that Holdren also has a PhD from Stanford in aero/astro engineering and plasma physics.

    And back to Bolden — another important consideration that I left out is how beholden Bolden will be to Sen. Nelson, which probably tips Bolden into the negative category for me. I’d rather the NASA Administrator’s suite not be an extension of a Florida Senator’s office. The office should serve the nation, not a state.

    FWIW…

  • common sense

    Whoever shows up in the Admin position will act as the WH tells him/her to. So, if NASA has some importance to the WH they will put someone they can trust and someone who can get Congress support, and hopefully possibly PUBLIC support. I strongly believe that whoever that person is, that without the prerequisite above there will be no needed change at NASA. Be it Bolden, Garver, or anyone. Status quo. Period.

    Also change for the sake of change is mindless. So you get a panel to evaluate the said possible change. The Augustine panel seems to show that someone realized the trouble NASA actually is in, “a sense of drift”. Let’s hope that the said person does not lose sight of the importance of a vibrant dynamic NASA for this country because of other ongoing more pressing problems.

    If they want to take 6 more months but do it right, I am all for it. VSE was a good thing in essence, O’Keefe’s approach seemed a reasonable one. O’Keefe was not an astronaut, not even an engineer but he seemed to either think straight or to listen to those who actually knew. No, I don’t know O’Keefe, just in case…

    I want and hope to see sophisticated thinking actually leading this agency.

  • @Major Tom

    On the couple of occasions that I’ve been in the room with him, Bolden did not strike me as the brightest bulb in the room. But I wouldn’t necessarily judge someone on such a limited basis (and such hearsay isn’t worth much anyway).

    I am just shaking head right now trying to decide what to say to this load of nonsense. If first impression don’t mean much to you why did you bother writing this? Your whole post is just extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous. You seem to be obsessed with multiple personality syndrome. Did you catch the part of his bio where he flew four shuttle missions two of which he commanded? Or how about the part where he commanded the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. He has a masters degree in systems management and was involve with the day to day management operations at NASA. I am not a big fan of George Abbey either, but please try to remember that Bolden will be executing the policy set forth by the Obama White House and not George Abbey.

  • Major Tom

    “I am just shaking head right now trying to decide what to say to this load of nonsense. If first impression don’t mean much to you why did you bother writing this?”

    Fair enough.

    “Your whole post is just extraordinarily arrogant and presumptuous.”

    On the contrary, I admitted that I don’t know Bolden well enough to assume what direction he would take as NASA Administrator. Instead of arrogantly presuming anything, I laid out some potential options based on Bolden’s career history and past associations. If you don’t like some aspects of Bolden’s career history and past associations, blame him, not me.

    “You seem to be obsessed with multiple personality syndrome.”

    No, I just don’t know Bolden well enough to say with much certainty what direction he would take NASA in.

    “Did you catch the part of his bio where he flew four shuttle missions two of which he commanded?

    Membership in the NASA astronaut corps is not (and should not) be a requirement for NASA Administrator. And although there’s always exceptions, some would argue (myself included) that astronauts rarely make good senior managers or development program managers.

    “Or how about the part where he commanded the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing.”

    Yes, see my reference to Bolden’s military career in my post above.

    “He has a masters degree in systems management and was involve with the day to day management operations at NASA.”

    Bolden was moved into that position at Abbey’s direction. It’s unclear how much actual operations responsibility he had vice being Abbey’s 9th floor eyes and ears.

    And, although flying out Shuttle is an operations challenge, the agency arguably has larger problems with the development and strategic direction of its human space flight programs post-Shuttle.

    “I am not a big fan of George Abbey either, but please try to remember that Bolden will be executing the policy set forth by the Obama White House and not George Abbey.”

    Were he appointed, I would certainly hope that Bolden would be his own man, but Abbey’s hold on the astronaut corps during his tenure was substantial and very detrimental to the agency.

    Moreover, my reservations about Bolden go well beyond Abbey, including ATK lobbying and indebtedness to Sen. Nelson. That said, Bolden was also O’Keefe’s pick for deputy and has an impressive military service career. Like I said in my first post, on that basis, I was on the fence regarding Bolden.

    But as I said in my other post, Bolden will be very indebted to Sen. Nelson for his nomination. And the NASA Administrator’s suite should not be an extension of the Florida Senator’s office. In the end, I think that makes me negative on Bolden as a potential nominee. NASA is a federal agency and should serve national interests — not the parochial interests of any particular state.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “Whoever shows up in the Admin position will act as the WH tells him/her to.”

    Not necessarily. For example, Griffin pursued a strategy that was arguably the antithesis of the policy direction provided in the VSE. And Griffin failed to achieve (or set the agency on a path to achieve) any of the VSE’s goals.

    “I want and hope to see sophisticated thinking actually leading this agency.”

    Amen.

    FWIW…

  • common sense

    @Major Tom:

    To the point, Griffin was reporting to the WH. If the former WH was not competent enough, or did not care enough, then it is the WH fault. There are so many ways it could have come up… But it still does not matter, the ultimate responsible party for NASA’s policy enforcement is the WH. So maybe Griffin was at fault but the “CEO” was MORE responsible. Accountability and responsibility were keys to the current WH tenant’s campaign. We’ll see.

  • Dr. Retardo

    “I want and hope to see sophisticated thinking actually leading this agency.”

    Amen.

    So you both think thathope and prayer will solve your launch vehicle and human space flight problems. Good luck with that, retards. It’s no wonder you’ve got problems.

  • Major Tom

    “So you both think thathope and prayer will solve your launch vehicle and human space flight problems. Good luck with that, retards.”

    It’s always a pleasure to hear from Elifritz.

    Ugh…

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