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Career Notes with Charles F. Bolden Jr, former NASA Astronaut and Administrator.

First as a Marine Corps Major General and then as NASA Administrator, Charles F. Bolden Jr. has dedicated his life to the service of the US.





In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed Charles F. Bolden Jr. to be the 12th NASA Administrator, making him only the second astronaut to hold that position.  While heading NASA, Bolden oversaw the transition from the Space Shuttle system to a new era of exploration, fully focused on the International Space Station (ISS) and aeronautics technology development.

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[ Intro Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: Welcome to T-Minus Career Notes. I'm Maria Varmazis, host of the T-Minus Space Daily Podcast. And today is November 24th, 2023, Black Friday in the US, or the day after we have consumed way too much food in most cases, and we're taking the day off to be with our families. So in lieu of our regular daily show, we have a very special program for you. Career Notes explores the pathways of some of the most influential leaders in aerospace. And our guest for today has had a trailblazing career in the US Military and at NASA, first as an astronaut, and later as the agency's administrator. Charles F. Bolden, Jr., has dedicated his life to the service of the United States. In 2009, President Barack Obama appointed him to be the 12th NASA administrator, making him only the second astronaut to hold that position. And while heading NASA, Bolden oversaw the transition from the space shuttle system to a new era of exploration, fully focused on the International Space Station and aeronautics technology development. This is his story in his own words.

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>> Charles Bolden, Jr.: First of all, I'm a product of the Jim Crow South. I was born in Columbia, South Carolina. My mom and dad were schoolteachers. They had both gone to a historically black college, Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte, North Carolina. And when they graduated in the class of 1940. They both came back home to Columbia and started teaching. The next year, my dad was drafted into the army, and so he served from '41 to '45 when the war ended. Came back home and they raised my brother and me. They were my initial -- and even in death remain my primary role models and mentors. My mother was my high school librarian and worked me pretty hard, and my dad was my high school football coach. And he had a saying, "It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog." He taught me how to cry. You know -- you know, he said, "That's fine for men to cry. In fact, you should feel really bad if you lose a football game. And so cry, get it over with, and then get back in there and don't lose again."

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They taught me three things. One was if I wanted to do anything, I could do it, as long as I was willing to study and work hard and never, ever, ever be afraid of failure. And in seventh grade, I saw a program on television called "Men of Annapolis" about life at the Naval Academy. I was so infatuated by this place, The Yard, as they called the Naval Academy grounds, that I decided as a 12 year old that I wanted to go to the Naval Academy. I started applying when I was in ninth grade in high school for a congressional appointment. For young men and women who may be listening to this and don't know, everybody is eligible for a vice presidential appointment. The Vice President of the United States can appoint anyone who is a US citizen from anywhere. The President can only appoint sons and daughters of congressional honor winners and active duty military. So the other category is congressional appointments which come from your two senators, US senators, and your congressional representative. And when I was in high school, the leader of the South Carolina delegation was Strom Thurmond. Strom Thurmond and Olin D. Johnston were my two US senators. Albert Watson was my congressional representative. And all three of them made it very clear that they were not -- could not appoint a Black to any service academy. When President Kennedy was assassinated my senior year in high school, November 22nd, same day we won the state championship in football, my hope of going to the Naval Academy went out the window because I was counting on an appointment from the Vice President and Lyndon Johnson. I had been talking to for a number of years by mail, and he kept saying, you know, "Write me back when you're a senior in high school." So my mother kind of -- she saw how devastated I was and she said are you going to quit? What do you mean? She said, "Are you going to give up?" And I said, "Well, what do I do? I'm -- I don't have another place to go." She said, "You figure it out." So I pulled out an old typewriter and I typed out a letter to the President of the United States to Lyndon B. Johnson and I said, "Look, this is me. It's -- I'm the same Charles Bolden that's always wanted to go to the Naval Academy. I need help. And I understand I can't get an appointment from you, but please, if there's anything you can do to help me get an appointment to the Naval Academy, do it." And I never heard from him. But within weeks, a Navy recruiter showed up at my front door, asked if, you know, I was the one that wanted to go to the Naval Academy. I said, "Sure." And then several months later, President Johnson sent a retired federal judge from Washington, D.C., Judge Bennett, sent him around the country visiting with schools in the South mainly, looking for qualified Black and Hispanic young men who wanted to go to the service academies. And so with those two supports, I ended up getting an appointment from Congressman William Dawson in Chicago, Illinois. So my application package was built and everything as me coming from Chicago. That's how I got to the Naval Academy.

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The very first person who impressed me, who made an impact on my life when I got to the Naval Academy, was my first company officer in my freshman year, Major John Riley Love. He was a young Marine Corps infantry officer who was responsible for the 150 or so of us and 29th Company of the 36th at the Naval Academy. He was like my dad. He was tough, but eminently fair. And he saw to it that every opportunity was presented to me as a midshipman, although I was the only Black in our company. As we graduated, there were only four of us in the graduating class, in the class of 1968. And when I got there, there were only 12. So there were 12 Blacks out of the 4,000 members of the brigade. But Major Love was always there for me. And when I look back four years later, getting ready to graduate, I was -- you know, I had to decide what I wanted to do. And I said, you know, I could do anything I want to. I want to be like him. I want to be like Major Love. And so I decided I was going to be a Marine Corps Infantry Officer. I went to the basic school, which is a six-month course of study in Quantico, Virginia, to teach everybody, no matter what you're going to do, to be a rifle platoon commander, to be an infantry officer. And I found out during our three-day war in the cold and snow and ice of Quantico, Virginia, at the end of November, that I really did not like crawling around in the mud. And so I said, "I don't think I'm going to do this." I told my wife that I was going to go ahead and take the aviation option and go to Pensacola. One of my flight instructors was a guy by the name of Major Pete Field. He was another Marine. You keep seeing these Marines come into my life. But Pete was a -- he was a test pilot who had been sent back to the training command to teach people to fly airplanes. Major Field always talked about being a test pilot. He talked about how demanding it was, how precise you had to be. It wasn't a scarf hanging out the window like people envisioned. It wasn't very glamorous at all. It was very, very demanding and precise. So I kind of said, "Boy, that sounds like what I want to do." So I started applying for test pilot school as soon as I graduated from flight school. It took me about six years or so, applying twice a year, being told no, until finally I went out to the University of Southern California. I was a Marine Corps recruiter when I came back from Vietnam in Los Angeles. And USC offered a master's degree program in which I enrolled. And I finished the degree requirements, got my master's degree from USC, and I said, "Okay, I'm going to apply one more time. And if I don't get in this time, I'm going to take it as a message from God that, nah, you're not intended to be a test pilot." I put my application in, and lo and behold, the Marine Corps selected me that year and sent me back to Patuxent River to start training to be a test pilot.

[ Music ]

Coming from the test community into NASA was just like coming from NASA to NASA, because the way we do things, you know, in the space agency are essentially the same way we do them in a military test community. When I went back to the Marine Corps, to the operating forces of the Marine Corps, after my 14 years in the astronaut office, I found that the transition was, again, very easy because I had gone from serving as a commander on a space shuttle twice, where I had a crew of seven and a $2 billion spacecraft for which I was responsible. And I had to work with the training team to get us appropriately trained. And I was responsible for getting the vehicle to space and back safely and -- and in one piece. And when I came back to the operating forces of the Marine Corps, I found that I was back in an organization that was the same size as NASA, about 18,000 people when I got to my command in the Marine Corps anyway. But I was fortunate to go back to the Naval Academy first and that allowed me to get what the Marine Corps calls re-greened. So I got back into a military environment right out of the astronaut office, fell in love with it. I was the Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy. NASA was fundamentally -- the astronaut office was fundamentally a military-like organization. You know, the original seven were all military officers, so they had built the astronaut office structurally and functionally to be very much like a military organization.

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My mom told me study really hard, work very hard at everything I do, and never, ever, ever be afraid of failure. Plan to apply multiple times for whatever job it is you want in NASA. The other thing to keep in mind is you can support the space program. You may have no desire to go to space, but every NASA center -- and we have nine centers around the country, and they're like little cities. The city manager or the mayor is called the director of a space center. So the mayor of the Johnson Space Center right now is Vanessa Weish, a wonderful Black woman who graduated from Clemson University in my home state of South Carolina. She has a comptroller, somebody who handles money for her. She has a communications office. So if you have any interest in any of those fields, say you don't think you're a technically oriented person but you're a great writer, apply to NASA, because the people who help us to tell our story, who can put it into prose and into cartoons and everything else, so that we can capture the hearts and minds of kids way down in kindergarten. Because we have to start early like everybody else. I would say, if you've got a talent, we can use you at NASA. So don't think you've got to be an astronaut to be a part of the space program.

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>> Maria Varmazis: That's it for T-Minus for November 24th, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcast. You can email us at space at n2k.com, or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures that we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was produced by Alice Carruth, mixing by Elliot Peltzman and Trey Hester, with original music and sound design by Elliot Peltzman. Our executive producer is Brandon Karpf, and I'm Maria Varmazis. Thanks for listening.

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