President Barack Obama's selection on Saturday of former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. to head NASA gives a boost to the agency's manned space program and its stated goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020.
During the presidential campaign, Obama had seemed lukewarm toward NASA and its hugely expensive human spaceflight program. Space enthusiasts were particularly worried after Obama staffers floated the idea of taking money from the space agency to fund domestic programs.
But now, with the selection of a retired Marine general and astronaut to run the agency, observers are asking whether this means the president has suddenly got religion for manned space flight.
The answer, according to space policy experts and NASA watchers around the country, is a qualified yes.
They say Bolden's view on specific projects, such as extending the space shuttle program beyond the 2010 retirement date chosen by the Bush administration, are still emerging, but his knowledge of the space agency's inner mechanics make him a strong voice for continuing manned flight.
"Clearly Charley Bolden would not have taken the job if he were being asked to shut down human spaceflight," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert in Washington, D.C.
Bolden's name surfaced early and gained momentum, based on his record as an astronaut and his military record of flying more than 100 Marine combat missions in Vietnam. He would also be the first black administrator of NASA.
The announcement of Bolden was supposed to coincide with the return of the shuttle Atlantis on Saturday. But bad weather over Cape Canaveral in Florida caused shuttle controllers to wave off the landing for a second day. Rather than keep the guessing game going, the White House announced Bolden's selection Saturday.
Bolden, 62, will be the second astronaut to run the agency. Richard H. Truly, a retired Navy vice admiral and shuttle commander, led NASA from 1989 to 1992.
Bolden has been on four shuttle missions and was the pilot on the flight that put the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit in 1990. He lives just outside the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
On his first shuttle flight, he was with then-astronaut Bill Nelson, who played an important role in Bolden's selection as NASA administrator. Nelson, now a Democratic senator from Florida, not only led the charge against Obama's first choice as administrator, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. J. Scott Gration, but also was an early and vocal advocate for Bolden.
"I trusted Charley with my life - and would do so again," Nelson said.
Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin called Bolden "a great choice. He deserves the status of national hero. This is a guy who has spent most of his life serving his country."
Logsdon said he believes the skepticism about Obama's support for manned flight was "misguided" from the first. The comment about taking money from NASA was made by a junior campaign aide, he said.
He added that a recent announcement that the administration plans to review the Ares rocket and Orion spacecraft that will replace the space shuttle by 2015, is not a shot across the bow of NASA's human spaceflight program, but rather more of a review of hardware.
Roger Launius, a space expert at the Smithsonian Institution, said it is too soon to know just how aggressively Bolden will support the Bush administration plan of returning to the moon by 2020 and going on to Mars from there. Or whether he will, as many expect, extend the life of the shuttle program to close the nearly five-year gap between the last shuttle flight and the first flight of the Ares-Orion system, a period during which NASA astronauts would have to beg rides on Soviet rockets.
"We don't know exactly what this means yet," he said. But "I think in Charley Bolden you'll have an individual who will be strong enough to speak to the administration" when he thinks the agency is going in the wrong direction.
On a procedural note, a top White House official said Bolden would need a "limited waiver" from new ethics rules so his past would not violate conflict-of-interest regulations.
Until March 2008, Bolden served on the board of directors for GenCorp, whose Aerojet subsidiary makes propulsion systems and maneuvering engines for the space shuttle and a new crewed capsule designed to help return American astronauts to the moon.