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On inauguration day, a transition at NASA, too

Posted January 20

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks during the final NASA town hall event with NASA Deputy Administrator Dava Newman, and NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

As Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office on the western front of the Capitol building, another transition is taking place three blocks south at NASA Headquarters. After eight years as NASA Administrator Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. is stepping down and Marshall Space Flight Director Robert Lightfoot is assuming an acting role until a successor is named by Trump and confirmed by Congress.

Born in Columbia, S.C., Bolden is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who served 34 years in the Marine Corps as a naval aviator flying attack aircraft in Vietnam. He went on to test pilot a variety of ground attack aircraft before beginning his next career with NASA.

Bolden was selected in NASA’s ninth group of astronauts in 1980. He flew four space shuttle missions, logging over 680 hours in space. He served as pilot on STS-61-C and STS-31; he commanded STS-45 and STS-60. His flights included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the first joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission, which featured a cosmonaut as a member of his crew.

Bolden’s tenure was summed up in a video released by NASA Thursday narrated by LeVar Burton, of Star Trek: The Next Generation. "From the segregated South to space, Charlie Bolden’s journey has served to shape a true leader,” Burton said in the video.

I’ve had the privilege of crossing paths with Bolden a couple of times from the hallways of NASA headquarters to a launchpad at the Kennedy Space Center and most recently last year at the State of NASA address in a giant aircraft hangar at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. He is easy-going guy, full of energy and very easy to talk to. If you address him as Administrator Bolden or even Major General, he consistently responds “please, call me Charlie."

Charlie is quick to ask about you. Whether a veteran NASA employee or a volunteer in the NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador program like me, he makes sure you leave the conversation feeling like a valued part of the mission.

The last time I had a few minutes to chat with him, we talked about the importance of STEM education and outreach into our local communities. He also talked a bit about his friend Ron McNair, fellow astronaut and South Carolinian, who was lost on the Space Shuttle Challenger. McNair encouraged him to apply to the astronaut corps. He calls his friendship with McNair his “Sputnik moment.”

Bolden would later oversee efforts to return the shuttle to flight safely after the 1986 Challenger accident as chief of the safety division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

While North Carolina native James Webb was named to the position only 24 days into John F. Kennedy’s presidency, confirmation of the NASA administrator isn’t usually as high on the priority list of a new administration. Dr. Robert Frosch was confirmed by the Senate 170 days into the Carter administration and Bolden’s confirmation came 176 days into Obama’s first term.

Other presidents have opted not to replace NASA leadership. Daniel Goldin held the post from 1992 through 2001, through the Clinton and both Bush administrations.

President-elect Trump has created “landing teams” to manage transition issues at cabinet-level departments such as defense and commerce as well as agencies like NASA. Chris Shank, former policy director for the House Science Committee and deputy chief of staff for Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), was tapped to lead the landing team at NASA. Prior to Shank’s time on Capitol Hill, he worked nearly 3 years at NASA as director of strategic investments and chief of strategic communications. Shank is also the sole member of the landing team at the National Science Foundation according to the transition website GreatAgain.gov.

The budget is likely among the top priorities for Lightfoot, Shank and the rest of the transition team. The Congressional Budget Act requires the Trump administration to submit an annual budget request to Congress by the first Monday in February.

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