Is Bolden right for NASA?

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Over at the "Old Gray Lady," New York Times editorial writers have chimed in on Marine Brig. Gen. (ret.)  Charles Bolden Jr.'s nomination to head NASA. (Thanks to NASA Watch for the heads-up.) And they urge caution.

"Although he has an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and a master’s in systems management, his skills are primarily operational. He lacks the deep technical expertise that enabled the previous administrator, Michael Griffin, to second-guess NASA’s own experts and those from industry."

How critical are the technical skills? Chats with a couple of historians who have long tracked the ups and downs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration suggest that while a solid technical background can be helpful, it's not critical.

Arguably, one of the most successful administrators in the agency's history got his undergraduate degree in education, then became a lawyer. His name: James Webb. The project he shepherded through its formative stages: The Apollo program.

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"Administrators typically have been political operatives," explains Roger Launius. He's the curator of the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum and served for years as NASA's chief historian. Administrators like NASA's first chief, Keith Glennan, or Webb were "very well connected to the political parties in power."

Webb in particular had the ear of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson, Dr. Launius continues, and knew where the bodies were buried in Washington.

"The best NASA administrators have been political insiders" whose connections allowed them to continue mustering support for the space program even in the face of ebbs and flows in public support, Launius says. (Speaking of public support, even during the heyday of the Apollo program, widely regarded as a Golden Age for the US space program, public-opinion surveys at the time showed that between 45 percent and 60 percent of Americans thought the government was spending too much on spaceflight.)

So maybe the question should be: Does Bolden have the political "right stuff"?

One answer: It's hard to become a general officer in the military without it. And while it's been widely reported that Bolden was not President Obama's top choice, Bolden counts Sen. Bill Nelson (D) of Florida as a very big fan. Senator Nelson served as a mission specialist on a shuttle flight Bolden piloted in 1986, when Nelson was a congressman. So Bolden has the ear of at least one influential politician on Capitol Hill.

Another issue folks at the NYT raise involves Bolden's former ties to some of the companies building key components for the rocket-and-capsule system that is currently being built to replace the space shuttles.

General Bolden’s past ties to aerospace companies merit close examination. He consulted briefly for a company that makes engines for the first stage of a new space rocket under development. And he was a board member of a company that has a contract to build engines for a new astronaut capsule.

Bolden would not be the first administrator to come into the job with just-severed ties to major players in the US aerospace industry. But who's the alternative?

So, recommends the editorial board, the Senate should make sure it's satisfied that Bolden will be "fiercely independent." Of what? In the end, he's a political appointee, albeit with a dual role. Once a president sets out a goal for the space program, the administrator must represent it to the agency. At the same time, the administrator must speak up for the agency to the president and Congress.

As a former astronaut with four shuttle missions under his belt and a recent member of the agency's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, Bolden certainly knows NASA. And NASA knows him.

As for the technical side of things, President Obama may have done Bolden (assuming he's confirmed) a big favor in handing a review of the manned spaceflight program to Norman Augustine. He's a highly respected, technically savvy, and politically well-connected aerospace engineer-cum-chair of US space- and aeronautics-policy review panels.

The way another historian, American University's Howard McCurdy, sees it, Augustine and his panel can carry the water on any technical reshaping of the human spaceflight program (or a decision to stay the current course) while Bolden -- who as a former shuttle commander has experience in keeping a team focused -- does the focusing number on the agency.

"Norm Augustine has been asked to resurrect his Augustine Report from almost 20 years ago and suggest a future direction for the space program at the same time a new NASA administrator with a very insightful understanding of the way the agency operates is coming in to lead NASA" Dr. McCurdy says. "It's an interesting combination."

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