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 Columbia in 1986. One fellow astronaut on that flight was Bill Nelson, then a member of the House of Representatives (“Bolden on Course,” 2009), who would later become a Democratic senator from Florida and a good friend and supporter. Bolden was part of a crew that deployed the Hubble Telescope on the 1990 flight of the Discovery.  He later commanded the Atlantis in 1992 and the Discovery in 1994 on flights that involved conducting many scientific experiments. He spent a total of 680 hours in space during these four flights (Rosen, 2009a; “Astronaut Bio,” 2007).


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 US went to war in the Middle East after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In March of 2002, after the Department of Defense issued a new policy limiting the placement of experienced military officers in civilian jobs, the administration withdrew Bolden’s nomination for that position. At that time Bolden was a senior military officer commanding the Third Marine Aircraft Wing in San Diego (“White House Withdraws…,” 2002). In 2009, a Democratic president nominated Bolden to oversee the future of the embattled space agency.


Born in Columbia, SC, on August 19, 1946, the future astronaut came from a family of teachers. They expected him to excel. His late mother, Ethel, a high school librarian who began her professional career as a teacher, described her own family in a 1988 interview as “well-educated.” She was herself the daughter and granddaughter of teachers. His father, Charles, Sr., taught school for a year before being drafted into the military just prior to the beginning of World War II. After the war he returned to education as a social studies teacher, counselor, and “a very successful coach,” in the words of his wife, Ethel (R. Williams, 1988). The Charles F. Bolden Stadium near Two Notch Road in Columbia was named for this extraordinary man, the father of the famous astronaut (“Bolden on Course,” 2009). Charles, Jr. and his younger brother, Warren, were raised in Columbia, at a time when schools and most institutions in the state were still segregated. They attended schools close to home, but Charles was able to expand his horizons by going out of state to various summer programs and institutes. Sometimes Bolden was one of only a few African-Americans attending (R. Williams, 1988). He was a fine athlete as well as a scholar, playing quarterback in high school football under the guidance of his father, who coached the team.


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 C.A. Johnson High School in 1964, and with the support of an Illinois congressman, he received an appointment to the US Naval Academy. At that point he planned to become a Navy frogman, known now as a SEAL.  He graduated in 1968 with a degree in Electrical Science. Influenced by one of his company commanders, he had decided to become an infantry officer, and thus he entered the Marine Corps. That same year, he married Columbia native Alexis “Jackie” Walker, who he had known for most of his life. The couple raised two children and now have three grandchildren as well (Johnson, 2004; “Bolden on Course,” 2009).


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 US was at war in Vietnam, and Lt. Bolden was sent to Southeast Asia. He would eventually fly more than 100 combat missions there in the early 1970s (“Astronaut Bio, 2007;”Charles F. Bolden, Jr.” 2009). After coming back to the US, Bolden held various positions with the Marine Corps, including serving as a recruiting officer. He continued his education at the University of Southern California and received a Master of Science in Systems Management degree in 1977. Then he attended the US Test Pilot School in Maryland, graduating in 1979, and served as a test pilot.


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 Houston with his family. He remained an astronaut until 1994, when he returned to active duty in the Marine Corps. Bolden would complete his Marine Corps career as a major general, the highest position held in the corps by an African-American. He retired in 2004 (“Astronaut Bio,” 1997; “Charles F. Bolden, Jr.,” 2009).


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 in South Carolina, although they have many friends and an extended family still in the state, many of whom traveled to Washington to his Senate confirmation hearing. Charles and Jackie Bolden are settled in Texas, near the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Thus, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, was able to claim him as one of Texas’ own, speaking warmly of him at the Senate Commerce Committee hearing in July of 2009. “I am excited…to have someone so experienced in so many areas to take on the huge challenge that NASA faces right now,” Hutchison said. Others heaped praise on the retired astronaut as well, including Representative Jim Clyburn, who came to the Senate panel hearing to praise Bolden. Clyburn is a Democrat, the only African-American member of the South Carolina legislative delegation, and holds a top leadership position as Majority Whip in the House of Representatives. Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, stated in support, “The president has chosen very wisely…(Bolden) is the right man at the right time, with the right skill mix and character…” Senator Bill Nelson, who had repeatedly urged the White House to nominate Bolden, described him as a man who could handle pressure well. Nelson recounted Bolden’s calm in responding to a helium leak warning light when the shuttle Columbia took off in 1986 (Rosen, 2009b).


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 that the US should maintain a strong presence in space for strategic and military reasons, not just for its scientific value. This includes maintaining the capability for human flight. The agency, which has a $17.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2009, is also faced with many questions concerning accountability. At the Senate hearing, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller asked Bolden how he would address bookkeeping issues, since even independent auditors had found it impossible to examine the agency’s assets. Bolden responded that NASA “can and must do better” (Matthews, 2009).


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 US and the world he has often urged students to go into the sciences. In a December 2006 interview in the United Kingdom, he noted that business was now a much more popular career than science because young people thought they could make a lot of money. Although Bolden did not himself achieve one of his dreams, to walk on the moon, he expressed the belief that with support and adequate funding, humans could and should reach Mars in another generation. When asked what was the best thing about going into space, he responded “Seeing Earth. It’s breathtaking and beautiful…” (A. Williams, 2006).


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 Columbia, and the Charles F. Bolden Elementary/Middle School at the Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station were named in his honor (“Bolden on Course,” 2009). Bolden is also the recipient of many honors, including numerous military awards such as the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Defense Superior Service Medal. He received an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the University of South Carolina in 1984, an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Winthrop College in 1986, the University of Southern California Alumni Award of Merit in 1989, and an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Johnson C. Smith University in 1990, among others (“Astronaut Bio,” 2007).


Speaking at a graduation ceremony at Baylor University’s College of Medicine in May of 2009, Bolden drew on the values he had learned as a Marine. He cited the words of both boxer Mohammed Ali, who had dismissed the idea that anything was impossible, and of Nkosi Johnson, a South African boy who died of AIDS at age 12, after urging people around the world to do as much as they could in the time they had. Bolden urged the new physicians to “Do everything with passion.” “You can change the world,” said Bolden. “Be courageous in everything you do. Don’t be afraid to stand up to someone who is about to do something wrong, because you know it’s wrong.  And be committed no matter where you happen to go” (Tolson, 2009).




Associated Press. 2009. “Panel Says NASA Should Skip Moon, Fly Elsewhere.” New York Times. (October 22): <> (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): <> (July 10, 2009).


“Charles F. Bolden, Jr.: Times Topics.” 2009. New York Times. (May 26):<> (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).

(July 11, 2009).


Johnson, Sandra. 2004. “Charles F. Bolden.” NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project. (Houston, Texas). (January 6). Oral History Transcript. (July 11, 2009).


Matthews, Mark. K. “Bolden Confirmed as NASA Chief.” 2009. The State (Columbia, SC: July 16): A1, A8.


O’Brien, Tim. 1994. "Astronaut Is Worried His Dreams Are Dying.” Albany Times Union (Albany, NY) (April 22): B1. 


Rosen, James. 2009a. “Bolden’s Challenge: Mold NASA’s Future.” The State (Columbia, SC: May 24): <> (May 24, 2009).


Rosen, James. 2009b. “Bolden: NASA’s Image Can Soar.” The State (Columbia, SC: July 9): A1, A6.


Spotts, Peter N. 2009. "Atop new NASA leader's agenda: human spaceflight. (National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Charles Bolden Jr.)(USA)." The Christian Science Monitor (May 26): 2.


Tolson, Mike. 2009. “Bolden calls graduates to action.” The Houston Chronicle (Houston, Tx: May 28): 3.


“White House Withdraws Nominee for NASA.” 2002. New York Times (March 14): <> (July 10, 2009).


Williams, Andrew. 2006. “60 Seconds: Charles Bolden.” Saturday (December 21). <> (July 11, 2009).


Williams, Robert V. 1988. “Interview with Ethel Bolden.” Transcribed by Sabra Bell and Donna Debmondt.  (June 9). <> (July 10, 2009).




Carol S. Botsch,


Last updated 10/23/2009