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Surprising Science

Boss in Space

You may have missed it between the 40th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing and the glowing tributes to the man who broadcast it to much of America, the late Walter Cronkite, but there was real space news last week. After days of asking weird and occasionaly insulting questions of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, the Senate quietly approved a new NASA chief, Charles Bolden. Whether this move truly reinvigorates America’s space agency, however, depends on a lot more than the new boss.

Bolden, a Major General in the Marines, flew four space shuttle missions in the 1980s and 90s, two as pilot and two as commander; astronauts cheered the idea that one of their own taking the helm. When I talked last week to George “Pinky” Nelson, who flew on Bolden’s first mission and now teaches at Western Washington University, he was elated. “Everybody I knew gave a ‘Woot!'” he said. The Apollo 11 astronauts, especially Buzz Aldrin, have been using their big anniversary as a platform to call for a return to ambitious human space exploration, and President Obama’s pick of a space flight veteran to lead NASA soothed those who feared the President would distance himself from his predecessor’s grand plan to return Americans to the moon and to Mars.

During his Senate committee hearing two weeks ago, Bolden said, “I want to go to Mars. I think everybody wants to go to Mars.” That pleased the chairman, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who said NASA had become too much a “splendid story of the past.” Bolden earned easy passage through the full Senate a week ago today. But now the real work comes, and Bolden’s vision alone won’t be enough, according to Kathryn Sullivan of the Ohio State University. Sullivan flew into space with Bolden twice and was a fervent supporter of his nomination, but told me last week that we get too caught up on one person and forget the reality. Congress and the President have the power of the law and the pocketbook, she said. 

An expert panel Obama convened to review NASA’s future should give its recommendations by next month, and it could lead to a contentious fight due to our dire economic situation. The Congressional Budget Office says that NASA will need $23.8 billion each year for the next 15 years to carry out its plans. And despite the fact that Obama picked Bolden, the Houston Chroniclereports that the White House planned to trim NASA’s share in the newest budget. Money’s always the thing, but Nelson told me that if there’s anyone who can navigate the federal bureaucracy, it’s a Marine Major General like Bolden. “As a military guy, he knows who he works for,” Nelson said. “But he’ll be a leader, too.”