WASHINGTON — The NASA community is used to asking big questions, but none has loomed larger in recent weeks than this: What will happen to NASA administrator Charlie Bolden?
His future — like that of other agency heads — depends on whether President Barack Obama wants him back for a second term. But the question is especially pertinent in Bolden's case, as his time at NASA has been marked by several missteps, including an offhand criticism of Obama just before Election Day.
Bolden's fate could be significant for Kennedy Space Center, which is charting a new future — as, among other things, a launch base for commercial spacecraft - in the wake of the space shuttle's 2011 retirement.
Bolden, 66, has never fully embraced Obama's plan to remake NASA through heavy investment in technology, nor the idea of increased reliance on commercial rockets to ferry crew and cargo to the space station. Instead, he has been more closely aligned with the development of a big, new government-built rocket capable of taking astronauts to the moon or Mars, a rocket that Congress - with the administration's reluctant approval - ordered be built by 2017.
Speculation about Bolden's tenure has spiked since he appeared to undercut Obama's goals for NASA during an Oct. 30 meeting with top-level NASA employees.
"If the president had gotten his way, the No. 1 priority for the agency probably would have been something like technology development," Bolden said. "That is something about which he is passionate, and if you notice, it is not one of (NASA's) three major priorities" — which are the space station, launching the new James Webb telescope and building the agency's new rocket and capsule.
As jarring as Bolden's seeming defiance of the White House was the timing: a week before Election Day and amid a campaign in which Obama had been accused of killing NASA.
Bolden declined an interview request but issued a statement that praised NASA's current course.
"I'm focused on carrying out the ambitious, bipartisan space program agreed to by the President and Congress, which ensures America will continue to lead the world in exploration for years to come," he said.
The unsteady relationship between Bolden and the White House began even before his July 2009 appointment, as he wasn't the administration's first pick.
But Bolden had a champion in U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Bolden piloted the 1986 space-shuttle mission that Nelson flew while serving in Congress, and Nelson remains an ardent supporter.
"When a president begins a second term in office, there's always gossip about who's leaving and who's staying. Senator Nelson doesn't speculate on that. But he fully expects Charlie Bolden to continue as administrator," said Dan McLaughlin, a Nelson spokesman.
Still, Bolden had a rough start as NASA chief.
In spring 2010, he appeared to undermine Obama's plan to cancel the troubled Constellation moon program when he backed additional test flights of its Ares rocket system. That summer, he got the administration in hot water for telling the Arabic news network Al-Jazeera that a top priority given to him by Obama was to "find a way to reach out to the Muslim world."
Then in September 2010, Bolden was reprimanded by the White House for violating its ethics code when, during a discussion about a NASA biofuels program, he sought the opinion of Marathon Oil Corp., where he once served on the board and held shares worth up to $1 million.
But Bolden survived the rough patch in part because replacing him would be difficult.
That's also the reason he could continue into a second term. Administration officials have said getting rid of Bolden requires replacing a "legend with a legend." Finding someone who fits the bill — and who also wants the job — is a difficult proposition.
Another calculation is whether Obama wants to pick a fight with Congress, where Bolden remains popular in some circles. Even so, administration officials said they see an advantage in getting someone new atop NASA.
"The administrator is a true American hero and was just the kind of leader NASA needed during this critical period of transition and retirement of the space shuttle," said a second official, also not authorized to speak on the record.
"No one can deny, though, there has been an accumulation of distractions, and in order to maximize NASA's opportunities, the U.S. civil space program would benefit from a leader fully committed to implementing the bold policy put forth by the president and his administration," the official added.
How soon Bolden's status is resolved is another open question, although some movement on that front is expected in the next month.