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Obama picks ex-astronaut to lead NASA

President Obama intends to name former astronaut Charles F. Bolden to head NASA. If confirmed by the Senate, Bolden would become the first African-American NASA administrator.

President Obama has chosen former astronaut Charles F. Bolden to head NASA. If confirmed by the Senate, Bolden would become the first African-American NASA administrator.

Word of Obama's choice came Saturday in statements from NASA and the White House. The president also tapped former NASA official Lori Garver, who headed Obama's space transition team, to become deputy administrator.

"These talented individuals will help put NASA on course to boldly push the boundaries of science, aeronautics and exploration in the 21st century and ensure the long-term vibrancy of America's space program," Obama said in Saturday's statement.

Bolden is an African-American born in 1946 in segregated South Carolina, where the law at the time forced him to study in a blacks-only school equipped with hand-me-downs and used books.

Despite the hard road of segregation, he logged top grades and pounded on the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy until a Northern congressman helped him get in. Bolden was elected president of his class, and graduated with the gold bars of a Marine second lieutenant.

Bolden earned his Naval Aviator wings and became one of America's outstanding combat pilots, flying more than 100 missions in the skies of North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Upon returning home, he became a leading Marine Corps test pilot and a NASA astronaut — logging 680 hours in Earth orbit.

Bolden first piloted the shuttle Columbia 23 years ago, and followed with three more space shuttle flights, including the flight that deployed the famed Hubble Space Telescope in 1990 and the first shuttle mission with a Russian crew member, in 1994. Bolden was shuttle commander for two flights, the one in 1994 as well as a science mission in 1992.

The spaceflight veteran retired from the military as a Marine Corps major general in 2003. Three years later, he explained during a Senate hearing why only astronauts could do certain tasks in space, and why only robots — like the rovers currently operating on Mars — should be used to explore certain types of hostile terrains. He made it clear that all sciences should get a fair shake.

Astronaut Kathy Sullivan, the first woman to make a spacewalk for NASA, flew in space twice with Bolden. "He's not a heavy-handed commander," she said. "He has the strength of character needed to shape up NASA."

Princeton physicist Gene McCall, a senior scientist and fellow at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and retired chief scientist of the Air Force Space Command, said "Charlie Bolden is well-qualified to continue moving NASA out of its years of drift."

Bolden has earned plaudits for his management skills, including service in the corporate world. 

After leaving NASA he was a lobbyist for three months for ATK, the company that builds the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle and for the new Ares rockets.  He also served on the board of GenCorp, another major NASA contractor. Those corporate connections may come up for debate during Senate deliberations over Bolden's nomination.

"The NASA family is a small community," said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum. "To find someone who's qualified and doesn't hold industry ties is not that easy. That shouldn't rule Bolden out."

The Senate's two NASA watchdogs, Maryland's Barbara Mikulski and Florida's Bill Nelson, both Democrats, have signed off on Bolden's nomination. Nelson flew with Bolden on the Columbia mission in 1986 and has been strongly supportive of his old crewmate. On Saturday, Nelson called Bolden "a patriot, a leader and a visionary."

"I trusted Charlie with my life — and would do so again," Nelson said.

Mikulski lavished further praise on Bolden: "Throughout his distinguished career in the U.S. Marine Corps and as a NASA astronaut, Mr. Bolden demonstrated that he has the right stuff.  He is committed to NASA’s mission and to a balanced space program that includes safe, reliable human space exploration, science and aeronautics research."

Garver served as an associate administrator at NASA during the Clinton administration. She was an adviser on space issues during last year's presidential campaign — first for Hillary Clinton, then for Obama. For a time in 2001 and 2002, Garver was a candidate for a flight to the international space station aboard a Russian Soyuz capsule. Her "AstroMom" campaign fizzled out, however, due to lack of sponsorship funding.

Jay Barbree is NBC News' Cape Canaveral correspondent. science editor Alan Boyle also contributed to this report.