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)
Air & Space Magazine

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?

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