NASA file
Charles F. Bolden Jr., who has been mentioned as a prospect to fill the top post at NASA, flew on four space shuttle missions and commanded the first shuttle mission to include a Russian cosmonaut as part of the crew. This photo dates back to that 1994 mission.
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/6/2009 4:15:52 PM ET 2009-01-06T21:15:52

Former astronaut Charles F. Bolden Jr. is emerging as a lead candidate to head NASA in the Obama administration. If selected for the post, the 62-year-old would be the first African-American appointed to serve as NASA administrator.

Bolden is a veteran of four spaceflights, with more than 680 hours in space, and retired from the Marine Corps in 2003 as a major general. A Naval Academy graduate, Bolden would be at the helm of the space agency for the construction and launches of NASA's new Ares rockets and Orion and Altair spaceships being built to return America to the moon.

Bolden made his first spaceflight as the pilot of the shuttle Columbia, 23 years ago next Monday. His second flight came in 1990, and he led two missions as commander in 1992 and 1994.

The 1994 mission marked the first shuttle flight to include a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalov, as a crew member. Bolden left NASA and returned to active duty in the Marines later that year.

During his time at NASA, Bolden took on a number of technical assignments, including a stint as assistant deputy administrator. In 2002, Bolden was chosen to serve as the agency's deputy administrator — but the nomination was later withdrawn because the White House decided he was needed more urgently in the military.

NASA's current administrator, Michael Griffin, took over from O'Keefe in 2005 and presided over much of the planning for America's return to the moon. He has signaled that he would be willing to stay on as the agency's chief, but in recent weeks some reports have hinted at frictions between Griffin and Obama's NASA transition team.

Sources involved in the White House transition said Bolden was under consideration for the NASA post, but they did not indicate that a final decision had been made. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss details of the selection process publicly.

A key figure in the selection of the NASA administrator will be Bill Nelson, Florida's senior senator. Nelson, a Democrat, has been advising President-elect Barack Obama on NASA issues and oversees a key Senate committee on space policy. Nelson also flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia with Bolden in January 1986 — on the flight just before the Challenger disaster.

While Nelson declined to comment on Bolden's possible appointment, his spokesman said that "the senator views him as a top-notch individual."

If Obama selects Bolden, he would be the first African-American appointed to head the space agency. Another African-American, former shuttle commander Fred Gregory, became deputy administrator during O'Keefe's tenure and briefly served as acting administrator in 2005 between O'Keefe's resignation and Griffin's Senate confirmation.

More on NASA | Obama

Jay Barbree is NBC News' space correspondent, based in Cape Canaveral. This report includes additional information from msnbc.com.

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