Critics question Charlie Bolden’s focus on NASA’s new ‘vision’
By Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block, Orlando Sentinel
October 18, 2010
WASHINGTON — A new NASA vision signed into law a week ago gives the agency four months or less to develop a dozen different plans for the future, including a detailed report on how it would replace the retiring space shuttle.
It’s an ambitious schedule — one that NASA chief Charlie Bolden said requires the agency to “think and act boldly.” But as has been the case for much of his tenure, Bolden won’t be around as the plans get rolling. The jet-setting ex-astronaut left for China on Friday for a weeklong trip.
Since taking charge of NASA in July 2009, the 64-year-old Bolden has visited 14 countries and has been missing at critical moments. Last year, he skipped one of the first shuttle flights under his watch to visit Japan and most recently was on a trip to Europe and the Middle East when the U.S. House nearly defeated the NASA vision endorsed by the Obama administration.
“How about saving the manned space program — in America?” said U.S. Rep. John Culberson of Texas, one of several Republicans who have loudly opposed Bolden’s most recent trip. “Charlie Bolden should stay focused on America’s manned space program.”
His absence, coupled with several gaffes, has fueled speculation that Bolden may not command the bridge for much longer.
Bolden was not available for comment but a NASA official downplayed the whispers.
“There’s always speculation about people’s tenure in Washington,” said Lori Garver, deputy NASA chief. “We have gotten to used it, and we don’t even consider it a distraction at NASA because we are so excited about our future.”
Fueling the talk is the rocky relationship between Bolden and the White House, which has been strained since President Barack Obama introduced his new plan for space exploration in February
In the week leading up to the unveiling of that plan, Bolden was in Germany and Israel on a trip that included a commemoration for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, killed in the 2003 Columbia accident.
Even after the Obama plan became public, Bolden never seemed to get on the same page as the administration, once telling staff to work on an alternative to Obama’s plan of using commercial rockets to re-supply the International Space Station with crew and cargo.
And in April, Bolden appeared to contradict the White House when he supported further test flights of a rocket being developed by the agency’s Constellation program — despite Obama’s aim to scuttle the project’s Ares rockets.
Ultimately, Congress and the White House settled on a blueprint, which became law Oct. 11. It tasks NASA with building a new spacecraft for exploration beyond lower Earth orbit while giving commercial rockets a greater role in supply missions to the International Space Station.
During a media conference call on the day of the signing, Bolden read a statement, thanked reporters and turned the call over to Garver — a practice that has become routine. Two sources said Bolden continued to listen to the questions addressed to Garver but was barred from speaking.
In fact, an Administration source said the White House originally planned to hold a public signing ceremony but canceled it when Bolden expressed interest in changing his travel plans and attending.
Although the White House denies it, Administration sources said Bolden has been told to keep a low profile.
He has all but disappeared from public view since the White House publicly reprimanded him last month. That reprimand came after NASA’s inspector general found he acted “inappropriately” when he consulted with Marathon Oil Corp. about a proposed NASA biofuels program.
Bolden is a former director of Marathon – which has its own biofuels program – and still holds shares worth up to $1 million.
Adding to the administration’s issues is that Bolden stays in the news even when he travels overseas.
He riled conservatives this summer when he told the Middle East network al Jazeera that one of his top priorities was outreach to the Muslim world. And against the advice of top NASA officials, he returned to the region recently to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first Arab astronaut’s shuttle flight — a trip that came as Congress was fiercely debating the bill providing a blueprint for future human space exploration.
The China trip has stirred controversy as well. A powerful Republican lawmaker told Bolden in a letter that he was “ardently opposed to any cooperation with the Chinese” on human spaceflight.
“It should go without saying that NASA has no business cooperating with the Chinese regime of human spaceflight,” wrote U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Virginia Republican who sits on the subcommittee with oversight of NASA’s budget. “China is taking an increasingly aggressive posture globally, and their interests rarely intersect with ours.”
Bolden wrote back that the trip had been in the works since November 2009 when Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to a dialogue on space. “While in China, I have also been invited to conduct site visits to Chinese human space flight facilities that were not previously offered to my predecessors,” Bolden wrote.
What happens when he returns is anyone’s guess.
“Bolden has also become an easy excuse for administration critics who don’t want to acknowledge any merit in the White House proposals [on space].” said Dale Ketcham, director of the University of Central Florida’s Space Research and Technology Institute. “They can simply point at Charlie and his seemingly inexplicable behavior to justify their opposition to badly needed change at the agency.”