A & S Interview: Charles Bolden
NASA's 12th Administrator talks about commercial space, flying fast, and the shuttle's legacy.
- By Linda Shiner
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
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.