Charles F. Bolden’s career as a naval aviator began at the United States Naval Academy, where he graduated in 1968 and accepted a commission as second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After earning his naval aviator wings in May 1970, Bolden flew more than 100 sorties in A-6 Intruder aircraft during the Vietnam War. In June of 1979, he graduated from the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Md. He has flown more than 6,000 hours in various aircraft.
Selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1980, Bolden served in the astronaut corps until 1994. He piloted two shuttle missions and commanded two, including the historic first joint American-Russian shuttle mission in February 1994.
After leaving the astronaut corps in 1994, Bolden returned to active service in the Marine Corps as deputy commander of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy. From February to June of 1998 he was commanding general of I Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD) in support of Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait, after which he was promoted to major general and assumed duty as deputy commander, United States Forces Japan. Before retiring from the military In August of 2004, Bolden served as the commanding general of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Miramar, Calif., from 2000-2002.
In 2009, President Obama appointed Bolden to be administrator of NASA. DMN Senior Writer Craig Collins recently conducted a phone interview with the NASA administrator in conjunction with the Centennial of Naval Aviation.
Craig Collins: NASA was on its way to the moon when you began your military career. Did you begin with the idea that you would someday become an astronaut?
NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden: None whatsoever. I grew up in Columbia, S.C. When I graduated from high school, I went to do something I had wanted to do since seventh grade, and that was just be a midshipman at the Naval Academy. I had no clue what I would be getting myself into, no idea what I wanted to do when I finished the Naval Academy. I knew I could go into the Marine Corps or the Navy. In my mind at that time, there were only two things I knew: I was not going to fly airplanes, and I was not going to be in the Marine Corps.
Ultimately I chose the Marine Corps because my first company officer was a Marine, an infantry officer, so when I graduated I went to the basic school with the purpose of becoming an infantry officer. While there, I found that I really didn’t like crawling around in the mud. My wife . . . was very happy when I said to her: “Why don’t we go to Pensacola and let me try this flying thing?”
So it was not until well into my flying career that I considered becoming an astronaut. In fact, I had been flying for twelve years before I went to Patuxent River to become a test pilot. It was not until I met Dr. Ron McNair – who was in the first group of Space Shuttle astronauts selected, and was a member of the Challenger crew that we lost in 1986 – that I even gave any consideration to applying for the space program.
When did you meet Dr. McNair?
He was in the first class selected for input specifically to the Space Shuttle Program, and he and a number of his classmates came back to Patuxent River, Md., the Test Pilot School, for the weekend, and I met him there. He and I talked a lot because he was from South Carolina, about 42 miles away from where I had grown up. We were both black. His mom had been a teacher. My parents were teachers. So we had a lot in common. At the end of the weekend, he asked me if I was going to apply for the space program. I told him, “No way.”
He said, “Why not?” I told him I’d never get selected. And he told me that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard. He challenged me. He said: “How do you know you won’t get selected if you don’t ask?”
So I thought about it, and I put my application in. I was nominated by the Marine Corps to NASA and then interviewed in February of 1980, and then got word of being selected on my wife’s birthday, on the 31st of May, 1980. I came to Houston that July.
So once you starting working as an astronaut, did you come across anything in the work that you thought your experience as an aviator had prepared you for?
It almost seemed that everything we did in the Astronaut Office, my experience as an aviator had prepared me for incredibly well. As a matter of fact, everybody who comes into the Astronaut Office is put through a curriculum in the T-38. They don’t all become pilots, but they at least learn to fly it, because we use the T-38 for orientation and to help people get accustomed to unusual attitudes and being in a flight environment where things happen unexpectedly. Now I was well prepared by virtue of having been a pilot, but especially by virtue of having been a test pilot.
Your experience seems unusual: After serving as an astronaut, you returned to the Marine Corps for an extended duty as a military commander. Was there anything you learned as an astronaut that helped to inform that experience?
I think the biggest thing I took back from NASA was just the reinforcement of the area of teamwork, which is something that’s vital in the military and even more critical when you’re putting a crew together. The other thing was that three of my four shuttle flights were international missions – they either involved an international crewmember, or the payloads were international in nature. So that much better prepared me to go back at the level I was going back to in the military. I served one year at the Naval Academy and then after that, I was out on the west coast of the U.S., in Kuwait and Japan, a lot of other places. So it prepared me pretty well for it.
Why do you think naval aviators are so prominent among U.S. astronauts?
The reason most of the earlier astronauts were Naval Academy graduates was because there was no Air Force Academy at the beginning of the space program. So guys like Tom Stafford [Lt. Gen., USAF, retired; a Gemini and Apollo astronaut] and many of the Apollo astronauts were Naval Academy graduates who opted to go into the Air Force. So even they have a rich tradition of naval heritage. They may not like to say that, but they do. At this time the Naval Academy has the largest number of people in the Astronaut Office – and probably always will – of any school.
Most of us astronauts who have flown as pilots all have naval aviation backgrounds. It prepares us very well, because we’ve all been to the boat or operated around the boat. I can’t think of a more demanding environment than operating on and off an aircraft carrier or a helicopter carrier. You’re pretty well prepared for an astronaut career, coming from a naval aviation background.