President Barack Obama will name former space shuttle commander Charles Bolden to lead NASA, the White House said on Saturday, in the midst of a major shift in the U.S. human space program.
Bolden, 62, a retired Marine general, flew on four shuttle missions before leaving the U.S. space agency in 1994 to return to the military.
Bolden, who would become the 12th administrator in NASA's 51-year history and its first black head, is seen as a strong advocate for human space flight.
"I think it's good news and good for the agency," said Frank Siezten, a Washington-based space consultant.
"All things being equal, he'll come down on the side of the current architecture. He's got an investment in the current system but he knows enough to ask the hard questions. You're not going to be able to roll Charlie Bolden."
Obama also intends to name Lori Garver, a space consultant who oversaw space-related issues for his transition team, as NASA's deputy administrator, the White House said.
"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.
Following the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003, NASA and the Bush administration backed a recommendation by the accident investigators to retire the rest of the shuttles in 2010 after completion of the International Space Station. NASA has eight missions left to fly.
The fleet's retirement will leave the United States without the ability to reach the space station until a new vehicle is ready to fly in about 2015. Russian Soyuz capsules will be used in the interim for trips to the space station.
Controversy about how to bridge the gap and the planned design for the new vehicles spurred Obama to appoint an independent panel, headed by former Lockheed Martin chairman Norm Augustine, to review the U.S. human space flight program.
The report is due in August.
The appointments need to be confirmed by the Senate, where Bolden has strong support, most notably from Florida Democrat Bill Nelson.
"Charlie is the kind of dynamic leader I believe the president was looking for and I know he'll meet these challenges head on," Nelson said.
Nelson flew as a guest on the shuttle Columbia in 1986 with a crew that included Bolden as the pilot.
Houston Mission Control relayed the news of the nominations to the seven-member crew of the shuttle Atlantis, which was prevented from landing in Florida on Saturday by bad weather.
Atlantis, winding up a 12-day repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, will try for a touchdown on Sunday.
Bolden was selected to become an astronaut in 1980. He stayed with NASA during its painful recovery after the 1986 Challenger disaster and went on to pilot the 1990 mission that launched the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.
He later commanded a 1992 shuttle atmospheric research flight and in 1994 led a mission that included the first Russian cosmonaut as a member of a shuttle crew.
The astronaut/cosmonaut exchange program culminated in a partnership to operate the International Space Station.
Bolden grew up in Columbia, South Carolina, and earned a bachelor of science from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1968. He later attended the University of Southern California and earned a master's degree in systems management.
Garver, 48, president of the Capital Space consultancy, also worked previously at NASA, serving as the agency's associate administrator of Policy and Plans from 1998 to 2001.