Charles F. Bolden, Jr.
Children are often told to
reach for the stars, but most remain earthbound both figuratively and
literally. But a lucky few escape the limits of the earth. As an astronaut,
Charles F. Bolden, Jr. flew on three different space shuttles. He flew on the
After retiring from his service in the Marine Corps with more than 6,000 hours of flying time to his credit, the former general was nominated by President Obama to become the second astronaut and the first African-American to head NASA on a permanent basis (Rosen, 2009a; Rosen, 2009b). Another African-American astronaut, Frederick D. Gregory, served as acting administrator of NASA for a short time in 2005 (“Charles F. Bolden,” 2009). On July 15, 2009, a unanimous Senate confirmed Bolden as the new NASA head. The position had been vacant since January of 2009 (Matthews, 2009).
Those who know Bolden
describe him as a “natural leader” growing up, someone who could “…get along
with everyone…” (“Bolden on Course,” 2009).
"He has, I think, universal respect," said John Logsdon, a
professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute of George Washington
University. "He's a really good guy, outgoing, friendly, even-temperament
sort of individual." (Greenfieldboyce, 2009). Presidents of both major
parties have recognized Bolden’s qualifications and leadership abilities.
Republican President George W. Bush nominated him to serve as NASA’s Deputy
Administrator. However, government officials became concerned about losing the
expertise of military officials as the
In a 2004 interview, Bolden stated that he had wanted to go into the military since 7th or 8th grade, but had not thought about becoming a pilot. He “fell in love with the uniform” after watching a television program entitled “Men of Annapolis.” As he watched that and other programs about the military, the teenager also noticed that the military men “seemed to get all the good looking girls” as well. Perhaps because he watched so many Navy-oriented shows, he decided that he would seek an appointment to the US Naval Academy. Over his middle and high school years, this became his goal. He did not feel it would be possible to gain a congressional appointment, although he wrote letters to his representative and senators as expected of any applicant. Year after year, he wrote letters, first to the vice president, then to the president, receiving the usual form letters back. Lyndon Johnson had become president after Kennedy’s assassination in November of 2003. The Johnson administration increased efforts in recruiting African-Americans. During Bolden’s senior year he was visited by a naval recruiter. He also had the chance to talk to a judge who spoke at his school and who was recruiting minorities in the South for the service academies under the auspices of the new administration (Johnson, 2004).
Bolden graduated from
Bolden became a second
lieutenant in the US Marine Corps after graduation. Persuaded to try going up
in an airplane with an instructor, he found the experience to be amazing and
changed his mind about aviation, much to the relief of his wife, who was not
happy that he wanted to enter the infantry during wartime. “It was like magic, and I knew that I wanted to fly,” Bolden
said (Johnson, 2004). In May of 1970, after completing a series of
flight training programs, he became a naval aviator. The
Bolden had not thought of
becoming an astronaut. “…not in my wildest
imagination could somebody like me become an astronaut, because they were all
white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, all test pilots, all about five-feet-ten. They
all looked alike. And I was none of those,” he said (Johnson, 2004). But he
decided to go ahead and apply. In 1980 NASA selected
Bolden for the astronaut corps. Sadly, his father had passed away the previous
year and could not share his joy, but his mother, although never happy that he
was flying airplanes, was “very proud”
despite her natural maternal fear for him (Johnson, 2004). Bolden entered the program in 1981, moving to
After retiring from the military, Bolden worked in the private sector as an aerospace industry lobbyist, later serving on the Board of Directors of another industry corporation. This presented a potential problem when Bolden was nominated to head NASA, because the Obama administration had put in place strict ethics rules that prohibited government employees from participating in any policy decisions for a two year period that affected an industry in which they had worked. Because Bolden had held positions in the aerospace industry, the Obama administration announced that it would issue a “limited waiver” so he could participate in such decisions, with the exception of those that involved contracts for the companies that had employed him (“Charles F. Bolden, Jr., 2009).
The Boldens no longer live
Managing NASA and leading it
into the future will be a challenge for Bolden. He will have to draw on his own
political skills to convince administration officials and members of Congress
Many see the choice of Bolden, a former astronaut, as a sign of support by the Obama administration for the future of the agency. Bolden is known as an advocate for NASA and for space flight, stating in a 1994 interview that “NASA’s job is to take risks…An unspoken condition of taking risks is that you might fail.” In that same interview, he noted the unwillingness of Congress to provide enough funding for needed “research and development” unless pushed by the American people. And in his view, the American people no longer saw the importance of spaceflight. “People dreamed of exploring space and the universe. I'm not sure people do that anymore,'' Bolden said. He and other supporters must help to restore that dream, he believes (O’Brien, 1994).
Over the years, Bolden has
served as an informal ambassador for space flight and science. During his
travels around the
Bolden’s statements about the politics of space flight, made in the mid 1990s, still ring true as the first decade of the twenty first century draws to a close. It is certainly a time of transition in which the nation faces hard budgetary choices. The Obama administration is reviewing NASA’s future and its mission. The shuttle program is concluding, and the five year old Constellation program, intended to replace it, is under review (Spotts, 2009). In May of 2009 the administration created a ten member panel charged with reviewing NASA’s goal of sending humans back to the moon by 2020 (Chang, 2009). In October of 2009, the panel recommended that NASA bypass the moon and instead focus on developing larger rockets and landing astronauts on asteroids or the moons of Mars (Associated Press, 2009).
Regardless of where the
future leads him, the 62 year old Bolden has already been widely recognized for
the many accomplishments of a full life. The Charles F. Bolden Jr. Freeway, a
portion of I-77 in
Speaking at a graduation
Associated Press. 2009. “Panel Says NASA Should Skip Moon, Fly Elsewhere.” New York Times. (October 22): <http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2009/10/22/science/AP-US-SCI-NASA-Future.html?scp=4&sq=NASA&st=cse> (October 23, 2009).
“Astronaut Bio: Charles F. Bolden, Jr.” 2007. NASA (June). (July 10, 2009).
“Bolden on Course for Top NASA Job.” 2009. The State (May 17): <http://www.thestate.com/local/story/790332.html> (July 10, 2009).
“Charles F. Bolden, Jr.: Times Topics.” 2009. New York Times. (May 26):<www.nytimes.com> (July 10, 2009).
Chang, Kenneth. 2009. "Panel is set to review NASA's plan for human space flight. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) (National Desk)." The New York Times 158.54694 (June 2): A16(L).
Greenfieldboyce, Nell. 2009. “Black Former Astronaut Picked to Lead NASA.” National Public Radio All Things Considered. (May 23). http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104498605
(July 11, 2009).
Sandra. 2004. “Charles F. Bolden.”
Mark. K. “Bolden Confirmed as NASA Chief.” 2009. The State (
Tim. 1994. "Astronaut Is Worried His Dreams Are Dying.”
Rosen, James. 2009a.
“Bolden’s Challenge: Mold NASA’s Future.” The
Rosen, James. 2009b.
“Bolden: NASA’s Image Can Soar.” The
Spotts, Peter N. 2009. "Atop new NASA leader's agenda: human spaceflight.
(National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Charles Bolden Jr.)(
Tolson, Mike. 2009. “Bolden
calls graduates to action.” The
“White House Withdraws Nominee for NASA.” 2002. New York Times (March 14): <www.nytimes.com> (July 10, 2009).
Williams, Andrew. 2006. “60 Seconds: Charles Bolden.” Saturday Metro.co.uk. (December 21). <http://www.metro.co.uk/fame/interviews/article.html?in_article_id=30260&in_page_id=11> (July 11, 2009).
Williams, Robert V. 1988.
“Interview with Ethel Bolden.” Transcribed by Sabra
Carol S. Botsch, email@example.com
Last updated 10/23/2009