Many people have “seen the world,” but few have actually seen it from the vantage point NASA administrator Charles Bolden has. He is a veteran of four space missions and has logged more than 680 hours in space. His rise to become the head of U.S. space operations reflects the values and life lessons he learned as a child in South Carolina.
After working as a pilot and test pilot for the Navy and Marine Corps, as well as serving as deputy NASA administrator, Bolden was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead NASA and on July 15, 2009, was confirmed by the Senate to become the first African-American and 12th overall leader of the agency.
Bolden’s schedule includes a strong focus on putting an astronaut on Mars and on commercializing space travel. Phil Noble interviewed Bolden at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Q: You went to the Naval Academy. Who appointed you?
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I was actually appointed by Congressman William Dawson from Chicago. In 1964 there weren’t African-American appointments from South Carolina. I was actually counting on appointment from Lyndon Johnson, who was the vice president. Every young man and young lady is eligible for vice presidential appointment. ... You have to be the son of an honorary medal winner or an active-duty military person to get a presidential appointment. I had been writing Johnson for a couple of years about my dream of becoming a midshipman, because I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to get an appointment from South Carolina. Then when President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, I was doubly devastated. ... I wrote (Johnson) a letter anyway. About a week later a Navy chief came to the front door and said, “I understand you’re interested in going to the Naval Academy.” Shortly after that a federal judge, Judge Bennett, was asked by President Johnson to travel around the U.S. and find young African-American men who were interested in going to the three principal service academies. And Judge Bennett came to my school, C.A. Johnson, and talked to me and the rest is history. I ended up getting the appointment from Congressman Dawson ....
Q: Were you the first African-American from South Carolina to attend the Naval Academy?
Yes. I was.
Q: Were you conscious of that fact?
I was aware of the difficulty in getting in, but it was not one of the things that I dwelled on. My mom and dad had always told me, “Don’t worry about things over which you have no control.” They told me to do my best, study hard and prepare myself and then try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way.
Q: When did you first get interested in space?
Growing up in South Carolina, I never dreamed that I could become an astronaut. The thing that really saved me, inspired me was meeting the late, great Ronald McNair, while I was a test pilot. Ron had grown up in Lake City, S.C., but I had never met him. Ron had been selected in the first group of space shuttle astronauts by NASA and he and some of the other pilots who were in the Navy came to Patuxent River Naval Base for a weekend. We met and talked and before Ron left he said, “Hey, are you going to apply for the space program?” I said, “No,” and he said, “Why not?” And I said, “Ron, they’ll never pick me.” And he looked at me and said: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard ... How do you know if you never ask?” I went back and started doing my application. I got picked up in the second class ...
Q: Was there something about South Carolina that enriched you and made you who you are?
No question. I tell people all of the time, despite the segregation I faced, the standards of living, respect and discipline were just incredible.
Q: What is your advice to the young boy or girl who says: “I want to be the first person to go to Mars. I want to do it?”
I’d tell them right now to forget about it. I’d tell them to study really hard, and make sure they get a solid background in math and science. Try to go to school to become an engineer or scientist ;it’s not absolutely necessary, but it’s ideal if you want to guarantee that you’re going to be one on the spaceship. Pick the military as an alternative. Then once you’ve gotten a technical undergraduate background, try and get some graduate school in. Then you come to NASA and say “I’m ready.” Start writing to NASA, put in your application. If you get a chance and you’re doing some research, look for an internship or co-op opportunity with NASA. ...We have 10 centers around the country. And the final thing I would tell them is don’t ever be afraid of failure.