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Former Astronaut Tapped to Lead NASA

Charles Bolden knows NASA. But can he play politics?

The former astronaut and retired Marine Corps general received universal praise Saturday after the early morning announcement that he was President Barack Obama's pick to head the space agency at this critical juncture.

"Gen. Bolden knows the agency from the ground up. I don't know anyone better prepared to lead the path there," said Joseph Dyer, chairman of NASA's independent safety panel, of which Bolden was a member.

"He has almost rock-star status when you're touring around NASA," Dyer said. "In a place like NASA, rock-star status rides upon deep knowledge and expertise."

If confirmed by the Senate, Bolden would become NASA's first African-American director. He also would replace former Administrator Michael Griffin, known more for his engineering brilliance than his political savvy.

Bolden, a former NASA assistant administrator, has navigated the bureaucratic, and occasionally hostile, maze known as the Marine Corps.

"Anybody who becomes a general officer in the (Department of Defense) understands the political world, both the internal agency they serve and the external political world of Washington," said Roger Launius, a former NASA historian and now a curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

Launius described Bolden as "a solid compromise," one who will soundly represent both the White House and NASA.

His nomination also appears to signal the direction Obama plans to take NASA.

"Bolden, in his interviews leading up to the nomination, made it very clear that he believed a strong human spaceflight program is an important part of the future," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University. "And so I think you have to interpret the nomination as a degree of agreement on the part of President Obama with that position."

Bill Nelson, the Orlando Democrat who flew with Bolden on a 1986 shuttle mission and has been his strongest supporter, heads the Senate panel that will oversee the confirmation hearing.

Bolden would be taking over NASA during a transition period.

The agency is scheduled to retire its aging shuttle fleet next year. At the same time, it is trying to develop a new rocket system that could take Americans back to the moon - and beyond. The White House, however, recently ordered an independent review of the manned spaceflight program.

Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University, said Bolden presents a good combination of qualities that should win over lawmakers. "He'll be a very technically competent and a managerially competent administrator, the kind of person that people on Capitol Hill like to see at the helm," he said.

One glitch that may come up during the confirmation process may be Bolden's past work for ATK, which builds the solid rocket boosters for the shuttle.

A White House official said Bolden's conflicts should not interfere with his job as administrator because he would not be required to weigh in on specific contracting arrangements, but instead would focus on broad policy and "broad-level engineering considerations."

Bolden would be granted a limited waiver to the administration's new ethics rule that forbids political appointees from participating on work "directly and substantially related" to former employers for two years, the official said.

However, the waiver will not allow Bolden to participate in any contractual decisions involving ATK or for Gencorp, another NASA contractor for which he served on its board.

FLORIDA TODAY staff writers Todd Halvorson and James Dean contributed to this report.

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