President Barack Obama has picked Charles Bolden as NASA chief, the White House announced Saturday, moving to make him the first African American and only the second ex-astronaut to lead the agency.
Obama also announced his plan to nominate his campaign space advisor, Lori Garver, as Deputy Administrator of NASA.
"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 a statement.
The announcement comes at a time of rising costs and flagging public enthusiasm for the space mission.
And Bolden, a retired Marine Corps major general, could encounter questions about his past connections to corporations involved in major NASA rocket contracts, media reports have said.
If confirmed by the Senate, as seems likely, his appointment would be the culmination of a career that has taken him to the heights of the US space and military establishments from a childhood in the segregated US south. He was born in Columbus, South Carolina August 19, 1946.
He won admission to the US Naval Academy where he was voted president of his graduating class of 1968.
As a Marine Corps fighter pilot, he flew combat missions over North and South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War.
He graduated from the US Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland in 1979 and the following year was selected as an astronaut by NASA.
Bolden, 62, held several technical and administrative posts at the space agency, including that of assistant deputy administrator at NASA headquarters in Washington. His first space flight was as a pilot on board the space shuttle Columbia.
Bolden piloted the Discovery shuttle that deployed the Hubble space telescope in 1990, and commanded two further shuttle missions, including a historic first joint US-Russian mission on Discovery in 1994.
That same year, he left NASA to return to active duty in the Marines, rising to the rank of major general and deputy commander of US forces in Japan before his retirement in 2003.
In the intervening years, NASA has struggled to maintain funding for a space mission that has lost much of the glamour of its early years, and has been afflicted by rising costs and dimming public interest. "While we have a pretty good grasp on the technology to accomplish this mission, I'm not certain we have the national will power or determination," Bolden told a senate subcommittee hearing in 2006 on the agency's budget woes.
Arguing that space exploration of any sort is "risky, expensive, and unpredictable," Bolden said bigger budgets were needed to support both human exploration and scientific experimentation and development.
Exploring the universe only through robotic or remote means, he said, "literally defeats our innate human drive and curiosity to explore the unknown and venture from this planet in search of ways to improve our lives here at home."
Bolden would be assuming the leadership of NASA as it prepares to retire the shuttle program next year.
He would have to keep the manned spaceflight program going for another five years before the first scheduled flight of the massively over-budget and glitch-marred Constellation program, which aims to lift off in 2015 and take astronauts to the moon and Mars.
Obama, who said in March that NASA had "a sense of drift", earlier this month ordered a review of the Constellation program.
Bolden is currently chief executive officer of Jack and Panther LLC, a privately held military- and aerospace-consulting firm.
He also sits on the board of Texas-based Marathon Oil, which was implicated in a money-laundering and corruption scandal involving the leader of oil-rich African nation Equatorial Guinea in 2004, but later cleared of any wrongdoing by a US Senate investigation.