Bolden discusses NASA

While NASA administrator Charles Bolden has been putting in his share of appearances, he hasn’t said much, nor made himself available to the media: the last speech by Bolden on NASA’s web site (as opposed to a short statement) is from early September. Space News, though, scored a coup when it obtained a transcript of an all-hands meeting by Bolden at NASA Marshall on Tuesday, a meeting that was open to NASA employees but closed to the media and general public. A Space News article summarizes some of the highlights of Bolden’s talk, which covered a wide range of topics. Some other items of interest:

? On the budget, Bolden sounded skeptical that a final FY11 appropriations bill would be completed during the current lame-duck session. That bill “we are hoping will come as soon as possible, in all likelihood not before the new Congress comes in, but that’s not an impossibility,” he said. He added that while the change in party control of the House is a “wild card”, he’s talked with “almost every” newly-elected member of Congress though last weekend and found bipartisan support for the agency. (He cited an unnamed candidate in Florida “who campaigned against the incumbent because the incumbent supported wasteful NASA spending”, but that candidate, who apparently won, now “wants to support wasteful NASA spending”.) “So I am cautiously optimistic that we will be okay once the appropriations bill is signed into law,” he said.

Bolden, asked about what the best and worst cases the agency could expect for its budget, said the best case would have been having the administration’s original proposal passed, but that it “could be a best case” if appropriators end up funding the agency at the levels in the authorization act. The worst case, he said, would be if Congress decided to roll back the budget to 2008 levels, as House GOP leaders proposed earlier this fall. “It would not be devastating,” Bolden said, but “there will be some programs that might go away.”

In the meantime NASA is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) at funds the agency at 2010 levels through December 3; that’s likely to be extended, perhaps into February. Bolden noted that one decision the agency made during this time was to smooth out the funding for Constellation since the authorization bill “significantly” reduced the requested funds for closing out the program: “[W]e didn’t want to make an abrupt change right away and end up having more people out of work.”

? On a related issue, Bolden downplayed the recommendation by the co-chairs of the deficit reduction commission to cut support for commercial crew development in the NASA budget, as part of a much larger package of cuts aimed at reducing the overall federal budget deficit. “My advice is don’t worry about it,” Bolden said, because it’s only a proposal by the committee chairs at this stage. He added that “commercial crew and cargo are essential for us” and that “we are critically dependent upon the success of the commercial entities.” However, he also pressed for funding the additional shuttle mission included in the authorization act “to bite on the risk” of delays in commercial cargo development by the two COTS and CRS awardees, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX. Flying the STS-135 mission “would give us an opportunity to put additional supplies and parts and pieces on board station that would take us out and give the commercial guys an opportunity to experience delays as we anticipate they will, because everybody does.”

? Bolden also downplayed the work by NASA’s Human Exploration Framework Team (HEFT), which came out with a phase 1 report in September. “HEFT is just a nursery, if you will, for ideas. It is not a program. It is not an office. They don’t make decisions,” Bolden said. “They just feed information to me and the rest of the leadership team.”

? Bolden provided some details about his trip to China last month. “We got an opportunity to see everything. Everything that we asked for plus some more,” he said. That apparently included a trip to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center, the spaceport used for China’s human spaceflight missions and rarely visited by Westerners. He said he presented “three principles” that were essential for any future cooperation with the US on spaceflight: transparency in all their actions, willingness to exercise reciprocity, and performing mutually beneficial activities. “If we didn’t get anything out of it, we weren’t interested,” Bolden said. He mentioned that on the last night there he met with a three-star general who runs both China’s human spaceflight program and its anti-satellite program (“An odd mix of responsibility,” he noted) who said that China didn’t need to cooperate with the US, and vice versa, but “the potential, if we choose to work together, is incredible.”

? Bolden also mentioned a couple of times what he reads–or, more accurately, what he doesn’t. “I don’t read the blogs,” he said. “You know all they do is just upset my day so I don’t read them, and you read them if you want.” He later cited as one example of why he doesn’t read blogs the criticism he got for remaining in Prague during the International Astronautical Congress at the end of September while the House was taking up the NASA authorization bill. “I was on the phone with everybody, you know, all of our committee members,” he said, adding that NASA center directors were also talking with members and answering their questions; in the end, the bill passed by a wide margin. “So if you want to go read somebody who’s going to be critical of you everyday, have at it. I don’t recommend it.”


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