Senate confirms Bolden as NASA chief

Charlie BoldenThe U.S. Senate unanimously agreed Wednesday that ex-astronaut Charlie Bolden should become the next chief of NASA, clearing the way for Bolden to take control during what could be one of the toughest tenures in the agency’s half-century history.

Bolden, a former Marine Corps general, could start within a week, according to a senior administration official. He will be joined by deputy administrator Lori Garver, a former NASA official and Democratic space adviser, who also was confirmed.

“My congratulations to the two of them,” said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who championed Bolden’s nomination, as the two men flew together on a 1986 space shuttle flight.

“Gen. Bolden takes over NASA at a critical time. NASA is adrift and needs a leader,” said Nelson, who added Bolden also needs the backing of President Barack Obama ? a jab meant to encourage the White House to give the space agency more funding.

Last week, Bolden generally earned high marks during a Senate panel hearing, but a vote on his nomination was delayed to give senators time to submit written questions. Once completed, Democratic leaders quickly moved for a full vote on the Senate floor.

Bolden faced his toughest questioning then from U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat who warned that NASA was “not a given.”

In his written questions, Rockefeller, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, asked what Bolden would do about NASA’s poor bookkeeping, which is so disorganized that an independent auditing firm could not examine its finances.

“If the agency (was) failing a financial audit, I would highlight that, but the fact of the matter is that NASA can’t even prepare its financial statements to allow auditors to do their job!” wrote Rockefeller.

Bolden said addressing this problem would be a “top priority.”

“We have been made aware that NASA has been unable to obtain a clean financial audit for several years. While we are told that the agency has been working hard to address this problem, it can and must do better,” Bolden responded.

NASA also faces a major challenge in deciding what spacecraft should replace the space shuttle, which is due to retire in 2010 or 2011. NASA’s current design, a new capsule mounted atop a rocket, has run into technical and financial problems and may not be ready for a first planned launch in 2015.

Obama has asked a blue-ribbon panel to study NASA’s future spaceflight plans. That commission, led by retired Lockheed Martin CEO Norm Augustine, should present its findings next month.

(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.