Meet NASA’s 12th Administrator

Charles Bolden talks about commercial space, flying fast and the shuttle’s legacy

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. NASA

NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden, Jr. is a retired Marine Major General who flew Grumman A-6 Intruders during the Vietnam War. As an astronaut he flew on four space shuttle missions—two as commander. He became the 12th NASA administrator on July 17, 2009. Gen. Bolden spoke with Air & Space Editor Linda Shiner in April.

Air & Space: As you watch these last space shuttle missions as the NASA administrator, what’s your feeling?

Bolden: My number one objective as administrator, as I’ve told everybody, is to safely fly out the shuttle. So I’m nervous every time, but I also know that what we’re doing is incredible work. It’s incredible for the nation because any time that someone sees the space shuttle launch, that’s America. It doesn’t make any difference where someone comes from. So I feel a very strong sense of pride, and a very keen sense of responsibility to the nation.

A & S: Do you feel that it’s being retired too soon, or is it time to move on?

Bolden: It’s time to move on. Many of us felt that we could have chosen to do this any time after Challenger. One of the biggest things about shuttle is that it does not have a capability to provide safe escape for a crew in an emergency, either on the launch pad or during the ascent phase of flight. So it’s an incredible engineering marvel, but that’s one shortcoming, and we think we can do better for our crews.

A & S: Are you excited—or is the agency excited—about the next COTS, or Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, missions?

Bolden: When we launched SpaceX [Elon Musk's commercial space company], everybody was excited because everybody sees that they are a partner and they’re a potential partner in human access to low-Earth orbit.  We get excited when we see something leave this planet.  You cannot help being excited. 

A & S: I don’t know whether this is a cheap shot or not, but the perception is that companies like SpaceX can go faster and do space launch cheaper than NASA has in the past, or that the customary NASA contractors have.

Bolden: No, that’s not a cheap shot at all. The reason that we wanted to go to commercial access and us buying their services is for those reasons. SpaceX, if you want to use that company as an example—they still have growing pains to go through. And their experience will help to mature the company and there will be some point when they stabilize in terms of numbers of employees, so they’ll spend a little bit more money, but they do things differently from the way we do things here in NASA.  We actually are making changes here in NASA in the way we do things. 

A & S: You’ve flown on four shuttle missions, and commanded two.  How has that experience influenced your leadership?

Bolden: Every experience I’ve had teaches me something else about leadership, but by the time I flew on the shuttle, I had had a lot of leadership experiences because I had been in the Marine Corps for more than 15 years by then. I had been through the Naval Academy, where leadership is the focus of all of your training, so I had learned quite a bit. 

One of the things that [shuttle command] re-emphasized about leadership was the critical importance of teamwork, the importance of being able to admit that you don’t know something or that you may have made a mistake, because just like in the Marine Corps, it’s really critical that your team be able to trust you. Literally, each one’s life is in the others’ hands. So people have to be able to believe that when you say something, you know what you’re talking about, and you’re telling them the truth. 

A & S: Did you ever feel in your moments as a commander that the lives of the astronauts on the crew were in danger?

Bolden: Never. Not a single time. I didn’t feel that we were in danger at any time in any of my four flights. 

A & S: Even though your first flight was to have been the 1986 Challenger flight, when the vehicle and crew were lost?

Bolden: It was to have been Challenger. Our crew got shifted six months prior.

A & S: Did that fateful change affect your attitude when you next flew?

Bolden: Not at all. You know some people go through life asking “Why me?” I have no clue why God does what he does with me, and I don’t worry about it.

A & S: No added nervousness after the Challenger catastrophe?

Bolden: No. It’s always easier to fly than to watch your friends fly. When we flew STS-26 [the first post-Challenger mission], [we flew] Rick Hauck and his crew. After we returned to flight after Challenger, it’s probably the most nervous…I don’t know, call it nervousness, fear…I don’t know. That was the worst I felt. Watching Rick and his crew launch.

We knew what had happened on Challenger the day of the accident. We didn’t know all the details, and we hadn’t gone through the re-design of the solid rocket boosters, but we knew after watching the video exactly what had happened. And we felt very confident that we had taken all the necessary steps. We’d gone way overboard to make sure that flight was going to be safe again, because everybody’s goal—and my number one objective now as the NASA administrator—is to make sure we keep our crews safe. But I was really worried when we flew Rick Hauck, because there’s always this gnawing in the back of your mind that says “Did we catch everything?” [Bolden was chief of the safety division at the Johnson Space Center during the period following the Challenger accident.]

A & S: What was more fun to fly? The space shuttle or the A-6 Intruder?

Bolden: Ooooh. That’s hard. They each have their own distinctive fun meter. The shuttle is incredible to fly because of the vantage point you get of Earth. The A-6 was also incredible to fly because you’re going really fast very close to the Earth.  So you get two totally different perspectives on the planet on which we live. The most thrilling, I would have to say, is the shuttle.

A & S: Do you have a sense of speed when you’re in orbit on the space shuttle?

Bolden: You do not, unless you’re trying to take photos of Earth. If you have a distinct point that you’re trying to photograph, you get a very, very distinct sense of speed because you get in the window, you sight your target, and you’re over it in about four or five seconds. You’re traveling at five miles a second, and things go from the top of the window to the bottom pretty quickly. Normally, it’s like you’re in a commercial airplane at 40,000 feet going across country.

A & S: When do you first find out that you’re really moving?

Bolden: You get a sensation of speed on re-entry because you’re looking at Earth all the time and you’re frequently looking at your target. For example, on my last flight, we were over Canada and everything in the United States was cloud-covered except the peninsula of Florida. So we were watching the peninsula of Florida and we were there in a matter of minutes, so you knew that you were really haulin’.

You get a sense that you’re going fast when you cross a continent in 10 minutes. You cross the west coast of the United States and 10 minutes later, you’re over the Atlantic Ocean, or you cross out of the Atlantic over Africa, then the next thing you know, you’re crossing over the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa.  So your brain tells you you’re going really fast, although it may not seem like it.

A & S: Speaking of going fast, were you the first to ride the crew escape system at the Kennedy Space Center?

Bolden: That’s correct. That was thrilling.  You get this whine from the wheel as it’s going down this wire—because the basket is hung from a slide wire, and it looks sort of like a gondola at a ski slope, except that it has two wheels that allow it to roll down the slide wire. Gravity pulls it down. You hit a paddle that cuts a wire that’s holding you up at the 195-foot level, and in a matter of seconds wooof!, you punch into this net that decelerates you and eventually stops you.

A & S: Aside from the International Space Station, what will the space shuttle be remembered for?

Bolden: It will definitely be remembered for being the vehicle that enabled us to get the International Space Station successfully assembled on orbit, but it depends on what your favorite thing is.  If you’re a scientist or an astronomer, it will always be remembered as the vehicle that delivered the Hubble Space Telescope, then flew four successful servicing missions capped off by one of the most spectacular flights in the history of the shuttle program, STS-125, when we did five back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back space walks and carried out every objective of that flight when no one thought we would be able to finish everything.

You look at other satellites that it deployed: Magellan, Ulysses. You look at the space laboratory that was flown on it, or the space habitation module. The people that it took to space. We now see, when you look at an astronaut crew, it’s usually a rainbow of people—all races, all genders, all nationalities. That would not have happened had it not been for the space shuttle, so there are countless things that the space shuttle will mean, just depending on who you are and where you sit.

A & S: Can you tell us something about the space shuttle that most people wouldn’t know?

Bolden: The thing that most people don’t know is that the space shuttle is the largest glider in the world. Most people think the space shuttle is an airplane when it comes back, but it’s a 270,000-pound glider that has the flying qualities of a brick. 

When you talk about airplanes, you use a term called lift-to-drag: how much lift does the wing produce compared to the amount of drag or resistance to flight does the whole body of the thing generate. A commercial airplane is about 12 to 1. Gliders get up to 26 or 30 to 1. The shuttle is about 3 to 1. What that says is that for every mile that you [lose in altitude] the shuttle will travel three miles. And the reason you see us point the nose at the ground until we go through 2,000 feet is that when you pull the nose up, the shuttle loses one nautical mile per hour per second.  So it goes from 300 mph while it’s doing that dive short of the runway to 195 mph in a matter of seconds.

A & S: What’s the lesson to take away from the space shuttle program?

Bolden: The number one lesson is that what we do is dangerous and risky. The number two lesson is that we can overcome any adversity as long as we stay together and work as a team and have a positive outlook on what we’re about to do.

Another lesson would be that international partnerships are absolutely incredible and invaluable, as demonstrated by the success of the International Space Station, which has now been permanently occupied for some 10 years or more.

A & S: Regarding international cooperation, you’ve said that your last mission, STS-60, was your most memorable. Is it because that was the first mission flown with a cosmonaut?

Bolden: That was a part of it, but my last mission was most memorable for the total experience from crew assignment to landing and post-flight appearances. And that’s over a space of about two years. If I compare the same two-year span for each of my other three flights, STS-60, which was the first joint Russian-American mission, it does stand out because it taught the value of not judging anyone based on their race, creed, color, nationality. It taught that when people come together for a common goal they can do almost anything, and that when people focus on their similarities rather than their differences, they can become an incredible team.  And it gave my family an opportunity to meet some absolutely incredible people who came from a really different culture.

A & S: You weren’t completely positive about participating in STS-60 at first.

Bolden: (Laughs) When I was told that I was going to be assigned to fly one more time, and I said, okay, what is it, and I was told it was the first joint Russian-American mission, I told 'em right away, I said, “Forget it. I’m a Marine. I trained all my life to kill those guys. They’d have done the same thing to me, and I don’t want to fly with them.” A mentor of mine told me to relax a little, and said that these two [cosmonauts] were in town, have dinner with them tonight and talk to them, and then let me know what you think.  And I had dinner with Sergei Krikalev and Vladimir Titov that evening here in Washington, and we talked about families, kids, and things we wanted in life. And by the time the dinner was over, I was sold. Even a Marine can change.

A & S: So does that give you hope that we will be partnering with more nations in the future? China, for example?

Bolden: I wouldn’t specifically pick any country, but we are constantly expanding our outreach with international partners. It is going to be critical as we go to this next phase of human exploration where we travel beyond low-Earth orbit. It will take the efforts of many nations for a trip, for example, to Mars.

A & S: What’s the most exciting mission on the horizon for NASA?

Bolden: The next one. For me as the NASA administrator, the most exciting thing on the horizon is always the next flight. A couple weeks ago, it was a spacecraft called Messenger. It was incredibly exciting, and there were no humans involved. It was the first spacecraft that we had sent into orbit around Mercury, a mission that had launched in 2004, had traveled 15 times around the sun. I was up at the Applied Physics Lab on the Johns Hopkins [University] campus, and that was pretty exciting.

In this business, we’re mission-oriented. We work to fly and we work to test and we work to do things. I don’t have very many people who come to work to sit around and talk about going fishing.


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