This month marks four years since Charles Bolden was nominated to head up NASA; in the past 25 years only Daniel Goldin has served longer as administrator. But has time run out for Charles Bolden? He seems a nice enough guy, personable, friendly, a Marine general, an impressive career as an astronaut, a respected open-door manager, yet it seems there have never been so many questions asked about where NASA is headed, what are its real goals, and arguments over what it should or could be doing. It’s all happened on Bolden’s watch and he’s done little to end the uncertainty, satisfy the critics or inspire the public.
Nor can Bolden seem to motivate the president ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_policy_of_the_Barack_Obama_administration#Criticism ). He’s failed to get a specific mandate for plans to send a crewed mission to Mars and instead can only claim a Mars expedition to be the ultimate goal sometime in the 2030s. Yet even that takes second place to the unloved asteroid mission slated for 2025. Incredibly, Bolden’s deputy, Lori Garver, tweeted on April 10 this year that there was “No need” for Obama’s commitment to Mars:
.@nasawatch No need. We are going to Mars. I’m the only one who takes off my shoes in meetings when I wear heels that are too high.
— Lori Garver (@Lori_Garver) April 10, 2013
No need for an official mandate?
It’s true Bolden was put in charge at a difficult time. His tenure began with the cancellation of the starved Constellation program; the shuttle program ended halfway through his current term, and he inherited the ongoing costs of the ISS. However, NASA does have a budget of around $17 billion which in historical trend terms ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Budget_of_NASA ) is very good. And Bolden has had four years to make things happen.
There’s been some notable moments of bad press.
Remember the infamous Al Jazeera TV interview not long after his appointment? He enthusiastically offered up the top three top priorities for NASA as given to him by President Obama. Said Bolden: “One, he wanted me to help reinspire children to want to get into science and math; he wanted me to expand our international relationships; and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math, and engineering.” (From here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/space/7875584/Barack-Obama-Nasa-must-try-to-make-Muslims-feel-good.html )
Can you imagine accepting the job as NASA Administrator and being told they’re your three goals? We can only imagine Bolden sheepishly nodding: “Yes sir, Mr President.”
Last year Bolden announced NASA had three top priorities for the coming few years. From the NASA website:
“The James Webb Space Telescope, successor to the Hubble, is slated to launch in 2018 and will be a giant leap forward in our quest to understand the universe and our origins.
“To ensure a future in space exploration, NASA will continue to work on the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle that will be used for eventual missions to deep space including Mars in the mid 2030s. Partnerships with American manufacturers to build launch and crew vehicles is a top priority at NASA.”
“And NASA remains committed to its work on the International Space Station. “This is the cornerstone activity of NASA,” says Bolden. “We have been living and working in space for six months at a time for over 11 years with an international crew and it’s been extremely successful. This is the place where we learn about human health, life support systems and more.” (From here: http://www.nasa.gov/centers/glenn/exploration/budget_2013.html )
It’s hard to see in that any justification for Bolden’s recent statement that: “As I have said many times, a human mission to Mars is today the ultimate destination in our solar system for humanity and it is a priority for NASA. Our entire exploration program is aligned to support this goal.” (Full speech here).
Bolden’s bureaucratic deputy, Lori Garver, also had a problem with priorities. According to the video (below) Garver told the American Astronomical Society that NASA’s priorities were to:
– Fight poverty
– Promote world peace and societal advancement
– Protect the environment
This is from the person who was NASA’s Associate Administrator of the Office of Policy and Plans and who “oversaw the analysis, development, and integration of NASA policies and long-range plans”. ( http://www.nasa.gov/home/bolden_nomination.html )
Which is all very different to the National Aeronautics and Space Act:
To be fair, for the past couple of years Bolden has said Mars is a priority. The problem is that he can’t a really firm commitment from Obama.
Instead of a clear Mars program he’s been given the mission to an unknown rock. It’s sad to see him desperately try to shoehorn that mission into the Mars program. Bolden told the Humans to Mars Summit in May 2013: “This experience exploring an asteroid will be critical for future Mars journeys.”
Despite his apparent support for Mars Bolden is eager to remind us how hard it is – the subtext being not to expect too much – while simultaneously pointing to the successes of the 20th century as evidence that somehow everything is going to be fine.
NASA has been sending probes to Mars for 50 years yet all Bolden wants to tell us is how much we don’t know and how dangerous Mars might be. That means another 20 years at least of rovers and probes – long enough so that any decisive change will happen on someone else’s watch.
And that’s the feeling you get from Bolden: He doesn’t want to risk any big mistakes, is not prepared to truly innovate or be the instigator of change.
Here’s NASA’s budget video full of platitudes, self-congratulation and an assortment of projects:
There’s also the impression that Bolden is sometimes uncomfortable with science or feels the need to dumb it down. In his recent speech at the Humans to Mars Summit he began his speech with a silly basketball metaphor: the original space race was “a game of one-on-one” but now we’re in the “NBA playoffs” or “the race for the Triple Crown”. Oh dear.
And then there’s truly puzzling stuff like Bolden’s “magic rocket” claims of 2010. Take a look:
More recently there was Bolden’s famously vapid comment when asked what could be done if we discovered an asteroid would hit New York in three weeks? Bolden’s answer: “Pray”. You may have thought he’d offer a heroic one-in-a-hundred chance mission of a hurried launch combined with an existing contingency plan. Such a vision in itself could have been truly inspirational to young movie-fed minds. But considering that Bolden’s NASA can’t even put a human into orbit that’s probably expecting way too much.
Not only does Bolden recommend prayer for asteroid defense, he has advised against spending money on correcting the situation. He said that: “the probability of any sizable NEO impacting Earth any time in the next 100 years is extremely remote.” So, says Bolden: “This is not an issue that we should worry about in the near term.” (from http://moonandback.com/2013/03/27/nasa-administrator-falters-on-planetary-defense/ ).
Can you think of any “great moment” from Bolden? A speech, an interview, any appearance where he’s looked like a dynamic leader of the world’s foremost science and exploration organization, a moment when he’s fired your spirit and got the heart racing? Chris Hadfield has done more to inspire people during his few weeks aboard the ISS than Bolden has in his entire time as NASA administrator.
Here’s Bolden in a classic gloomy moment: “If we start straying from our path and going to an alternative plan, where we decide we’re going to go back to the Moon and spend a little time developing the technologies and the systems we need, we’re doomed. We will not get to Mars in the 2030s, if ever, to be quite honest.” ( Quoted from here: http://www.spacepolitics.com/2013/05/07/bolden-the-path-to-mars-requires-commercial-crew-and-sls-but-not-the-moon/ ) If we go to the Moon we may never go to Mars? Really? Yet going to an asteroid is somehow vital for Mars?
But at least Bolden believes in the leadership of the US in space? Well, maybe. Says Bolden: “I have no desire to do a Mars landing on our own. The US cannot always be the leader, but we can be the inspirational leader through international cooperation”. (From: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/tech/science/space/story/2012-08-01/NASA-mars-rover/56656270/1 ). Co-operation is a wonderful thing as the vast majority of people would agree. Space exploration can and has promoted international goodwill. But to bluntly state there is no desire to do a Mars landing on our own and instead we might just act as an inspiration to others?
In his new book Buzz Aldrin says that there is angst regarding the future of US space exploration and that America’s space leadership is “up for grabs” from a rejuvenated Russian program and the methodical Chinese.
What do you think? Is it time Bolden (and Garver) quit? Would new leadership reinvigorate NASA, and if so, who should it be?