Charles Frank Bolden Jr. is a legend and a role model like few others. Charles Bolden is an astronaut who went to space on four missions between 1986 and 1994, and spent over 680hours in orbit around earth. He piloted Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986, Discovery in 1990 and commanded the crew of Atlantis in 1992 and Discovery again in 1994. On loan to NASA from the US Marine Corps, he later returned to the Corps and retired as a Major General. He was eventually called back to head NASA for 8years by the then US President Barack Obama.

Bolden visited Bangalore on March 6 in his role as a US Science Envoy for Space, giving talks at the National Law School, to India’s Scouts and Guides, and other groups of largely young audiences, along with a quick visit for discussions at ISRO. His latest mission is to travel the world and inspire studies and careers in STEM fields, and to talk about space exploration and what is happening today with commercial space.

It is difficult to imagine a better ambassador for space and for inspiring people. At 73, Charles Bolden has endless passion and stamina, and remains warm and affable even at the end of a long day of talks, and not to mention jetlag.

It is easy to think that Bolden was destined for his career, and that it was one he dreamed about. He is quick to share otherwise. “I never dreamed of being an astronaut. I am not what people think as a ‘typical’ astronaut. I’m not even sure that there is a ‘typical’ astronaut because roughly 50 per cent of the astronauts I worked with never dreamed of being astronauts. In my case, I was never going to fly a plane, I was not going to be a Marine, and never thought of being an astronaut.”

Charles Bolden was born in 1946 to African-American parents who were high school sweethearts, and grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. “I was born in the segregated South. When I grew up, whites went to separate schools and blacks went to separate schools. People that looked like me did not become astronauts.”

Even after Bolden joined naval college and started working towards becoming a Marine, something that was difficult enough for an African-American in the 60s, going into space was beyond his dreams. “I was a young military cadet watching Neil Armstrong land on the Moon. I was fascinated, but never thought that this is what I would be able
to do.”

Most early NASA astronauts were not only all-white and all-male, but were also all test pilots from the air force. It was Buzz Aldrin in the late 1960s and a few astronauts who came after him who were the first non-test-pilot astronauts who set the trend for scientists, physicists, engineers and others to become astronauts taking their expertise up to space. It was only in the late 1970s that the pool of astronauts became more diverse, with 1978’s NASA Group 8 of Astronauts TFNG — Thirty-Five New Guys. This group included Sally Ride, Judith Resnick, Anna Fisher and Kathryn Sullivan, the first American women in space; Guion Bluford and Ronald McNair, the first African-Americans in space; and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American in space.

Bolden credits Ronald McNair with nudging him into applying for an astronaut role at NASA. The late McNair was also born in South Carolina like Bolden, and had received a PhD in Physics from MIT, apart from being recognised for his work in laser physics. With many honours, honorary doctorates and fellowships, and a 6th degree black belt in Taekwando, McNair went on to become an astronaut at NASA.

Bolden recounted how they spent an evening together when Bolden was a pilot in the Marines, where McNair talked about the space programme at length and could see a gleam in Bolden’s eyes. At the end of their conversation, McNair apparently asked Bolden, “Would you apply to be an astronaut?” To which Bolden replied, “They’d never pick me.” McNair retorted, “That is the dumbest thing I have heard. How do you know if you never asked?” Bolden remembered feeling foolish at the time. “I forgot what my parents had taught me. I felt like an ant but then picked up the paper and applied. And the Marine Corps deputed me and it actually happened.”

Talking about his life in space and why NASA does what it does, Bolden says, “We go to space because we want to make life better back on Earth. When we went up on the Space Shuttle, we would experience 16 sunrises and 16 sunsets every day. We would have 45 minutes of darkness, and then 45 minutes of light, with each change taking your
breath away.”

“When I went up in the Space Shuttle, I really wanted to be able to look at Africa, at Nigeria, at places where my ancestors might have come from. But when you see land up from space, there are no borders. No boundaries. There is no sign of people. I was 39-years-old when I first flew into space. I realised that all these borders and divisions are in my head. In the blink of an eye I think I became an environmentalist.”

Bolden wells up at the mention of Indian-born Kalpana Chawla, an inspiration to many in India, who was lost in the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003. “What she did in her brief time on this earth is incredible. When you talk to anybody who knew her, (they’d tell you that) she’s somebody you wanted to be like; she’s somebody that you wanted to follow. If you had a kid, you wanted your child to be like her. She was an incredible role model, an incredible inspiration for all of us who knew her, and it is incumbent upon us to help carry out her legacy.”

“I flew my first flight in January of 1986 and I came back on the 18th of January, and ten days later I lost seven of my close friends when we lost Challenger. I went from having the greatest feeling I’ve ever had, to being way down after having lost even Ron McNair. I made the decision to stay because I felt that we owed it to them and their legacy to keep pushing on.”

With India looking to launch its own human spaceflight programme soon, I pushed Charles Bolden a little on whether human spaceflight has the most inspirational value amongst all space programmes. He finally responded with a laugh and a smile, “That’s your opinion and I agree with it! I like that opinion.”

“We are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Neil Armstrong landing. My granddaughters? They don’t care. They call me ‘OG,’ but when I took them to the recent launch of the Curiosity Rover… that really excited them. SpaceX really excited them. And I think NASA has done a really good job in getting
us there.”

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