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
(Page 2 of 3)
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?