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NASA's Future Is Rising From 'the Swamp'

Steidle grew up on Long Island and went to the U.S. Naval Academy because he wanted to fly, graduating in 1968. He flew as a carrier-based fighter pilot over North Vietnam, later served as a test pilot and test pilot instructor, and deployed aboard ships in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

"When I came up for major command, which would be either a ship or a major program, I was selected for the F-18," he said. "It wasn't my fault. It just wound up that I was headed in that direction."

Craig E. Steidle, left, is laying the groundwork for NASA to return to manned space exploration by sending astronauts back to the moon and eventually to Mars. (David J. Phillip -- AP)

In Profile

Craig E. Steidle

Title: Associate administrator, NASA.

Education: Bachelor of science, U.S. Naval Academy; master of science, systems mangement, University of Southern California; master of science, aerospace engineering, Virginia Tech.

Age: 59.

Family: Married; three children.

Career highlights: Self-employed aerospace consultant; retired rear admiral, Navy; served in Navy, 1968-2000: combat fighter pilot, Navy test pilot, ran F/A-18 fighter program for the Navy, ran Joint Strike Fighter Program for the Defense Department. Received the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Navy Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, Meritorious Service Medal with gold star, Air Medals with bronze star.

Pastimes: Soaring, woodworking.

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But on his last day in the Navy, in 2000, "I flew slot [rear position in a diamond formation] with the Blue Angels in their practice session," he said. He flies gliders now with a soaring club based in Front Royal.

Steidle was working as a self-employed aerospace consultant when NASA Deputy Administrator Frederick D. Gregory called him up to talk about "major systems development programs," Steidle said.

Steidle had briefed NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe at least twice on the F-18 program in the early 1990s, when O'Keefe was secretary of the Navy, but he did not know Gregory. Still, the conversation went so well that Gregory asked him if he could come in for a visit.

" 'When?' " I asked."

Well, Gregory said, now.

So Steidle went, and "I never left," he said. "One day, I'm sitting next to [astronaut] Buzz Aldrin. The next day, I'm sitting with [astronaut] Tom Stafford. The next day, I'm working on programs to go back to the moon. Who couldn't love that?"

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