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.