New NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a respected former shuttle commander and retired Marine Corps major general, said Tuesday he's confident an ongoing presidential review of NASA's manned space program will not result in changes that would lengthen the projected five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of a new rocket system to replace it.
While he would not say what sort of rocket system he favors--NASA's current Ares program or some alternative--Bolden said review Chairman Norman Augustine understands the critical need to replace the shuttle as soon as possible to minimize reliance on Russian Soyuz rockets.
"I definitely have concerns about the gap growing," Bolden told CBS News in an interview. "I don't want anyone to think I have any doubts whatsoever that the Augustine committee is going to bring in a group of options that will include something that is incredibly attractive. I would not be surprised if they brought in an option that was incredibly, incredibly attractive, but we couldn't do for one reason or another.
"So, I'm comfortable that we'll get reasonable options that we can make work...In my conversation with him, I came away feeling good that he understood the importance of not prolonging the gap. So my guess...is the options he's going to bring in are going to be options that don't prolong the gap. I don't want to second-guess, but I would be surprised if he brought in an option that said, OK, it's worth waiting 10 years for."
Confirmed by the Senate last week, Bolden assumes the leadership of the civilian space agency at a particularly critical time. Along with the Augustine review of NASA's plans to build a new rocket system to replace the shuttle, national space policy is being re-assessed and NASA's long-range goal of returning to the moon is in some doubt.
Under a post-Columbia Bush administration directive, NASA is attempting to complete the International Space Station by the end of 2010 before retiring the space shuttle fleet. Money freed up by retiring the shuttle and finishing the station will go into development of a new rocket, known as Ares 1, that will propel Apollo-like Orion crew capsules to the space station starting around 2015.
Until then, NASA and U.S. partner astronauts will have to hitch rides to the station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.
NASA's long-range plan is to build a huge new unmanned rocket called the Ares 5 to boost lunar landers and docked Orion capsules to the moon for long-duration stays on the surface. The ultimate, as-yet-unfunded, goal is to launch manned missions to Mars.
But NASA was not given significant new funding to kick-start development of the new rockets, resulting in the projected five-year gap between the end of shuttle operations and the debut of Ares 1/Orion.
President Obama has expressed support for the Constellation program, but he ordered the Augustine review, which could result in a major change of direction. Another presidential review is under way to look at whether changes are needed to the national space policy that governs commercial, civilian, and military space operations.
The space policy review is "totally different from everything else you hear about," Bolden told agency workers Tuesday. "The nation needs to have a coherent idea about what it's going to use space for. And that's military space, that's commercial space, that's NASA space, that's everything, satellites, people, all that stuff. And there needs to be a coherent policy.
"So President Obama has asked (for) a group to come up with, to at least take a look at, the national space policy. And that's already under way to a limited extent and we hope to be participating in that as a full member of the people doing that work.
"The Augustine committee is something everybody's heard about. It is not something to fear, to be afraid of. I would have been remiss in my duties as the NASA administrator if I came in to office and I didn't go pull the center directors together and the (associate administrators) and say OK, tell me what we're doing, tell me how it's going and tell me what we might need to change."
In an "all hands" meeting with agency workers carried by NASA's satellite television system, Bolden said he goes by Charlie, not Charles or Chuck, that he cries easily, that he is a "participatory" leader and a dedicated environmentalist.
"I think I was an environmentalist before the first time I flew in space, but my first spaceflight--other than crying a lot because of its awesome perspective--I really gained a healthy respect for this planet on which we live...My favorite place is the Middle East. I have friends there, I have traveled there, I have done lots of things there. It is incredibly beautiful from outer space and you would never think it is as violent as it is.
"In contrast, you look at the Amazon rain forest, which is just incredibly breathtaking from space and yet now, because of our remote sensing and other things, you can see the devastation that's being wreaked there by deforestation and other things. So there are things we need to do. We need to provide data to policy makers and decision makers...so people can make smart decisions about it."