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July 24, 2014, 5:02 pm

NASA head talks Mars, future space travel

The grainy images taken by the nuclear-powered Curiosity rover of the lofty mountains and red deserts of the planet Mars are only the most recent dazzling accomplishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the agency that landed men on the moon, and created a space shuttle that could safely land like an airplane.

Determined not to rest on their laurels, NASA’s 12th administrator, Charles Frank Bolden Jr., says the federal space agency still has worlds to explore and missions to accomplish.

“There was a feeling of relation, relief, to be quiet honest,” Bolden told the Tribune. “We have taken what to many people may seem like science fiction and made it science fact.”

The retired Marine Corps general was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the United States Senate in 2009 to lead more than 17,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors around the world to execute the vision and operations of the world’s foremost space exploration organization. As the voice and face of NASA, Bolden communicates directly to the president and Congress on current projects and future missions.

While growing up in segregated Columbia, South Carolina, Bolden said that he couldn’t have dreamt that his 34-year career would land him in leadership roles in the military and ultimately NASA.

“You would think that I went to the Naval Academy because I wanted to be a leader, but I didn’t,” Bolden said. “I was fascinated by the life that I saw of a mission on a television program called ‘Men of Annapolis’ that talked about life at the Naval Academy — and I was especially impressed with the uniform. I had no knowledge about what the Navy was going to be like. My assumption was that I was going to the Navy because of two things that I knew — I was not joining the Marine Corps, and I definitely would not fly airplanes.

Along the way, those goals changed.

“Not in my wildest imagination did I think that I would become an astronaut, or a general officer in the Marine Corps, and most especially not the NASA administrator. These were all three things that came in my life quite by surprise to me — not by plan.”

In 1968, Bolden graduated from the Naval Academy as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Four years later, he served as a naval aviator stationed in Thailand and flew missions over Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the A6A Intruder.

In 1977, Bolden returned to the United States and earned a master’s degree in electrical engineering from the University of Southern California. He then attended the Naval Test Pilot School where he met Dr. Ron McNair. McNair and Bolden grew up about 42 miles from each other, but didn’t know one another. McNair was from Lake City, South Carolina.

“I met Ron McNair while I was serving as a test pilot,” Bolden said. “We spent a weekend at a place called Pawtucket River, Maryland, just talking about his experiences in the astronaut office and his first year. I would never have applied for the astronaut program had it not been for Ron.”

One day, McNair asked Bolden if he would join the astronaut program.

“I properly told him, ‘Not on your life.’ He looked at me and frowned and said, ‘You know that’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. Why not?’ I said, ‘They’d never pick me.’ He said, ‘How do you know if you don’t apply.’ Ron McNair encouraged and inspired me to apply for the astronaut program. I did, and I was subsequently invited to come to Houston to interview.”

In 1981, NASA selected Bolden as one of only eight Marines in the shuttle program, and the first African-American Marine to become an astronaut.

“My peers at that time were other test pilots from Pax River and friends of mine from the Marine Corps, and they all were very encouraging. I think most of them shared my joy, the joy of my wife and me, when the word finally came out that I had been selected in the second group of the Space Shuttle astronauts.”

As an astronaut, Bolden flew four shuttle missions between 1986 and 1994.

He would then return to the Marine Corps as Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy. In 1997, Bolden was named Deputy Commanding General of the First Marine Expeditionary Force in the Pacific. He served as Commanding General of the First Marine Expeditionary Force Forward during Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait.

In 1998, Bolden was promoted to Major General and named Deputy Commander of the United States Forces in Japan. In 2002, he was named Commanding General of the Third Marine Aircraft Wing in San Diego, and in 2003, he retired from the Marine Corps.

Now as NASA Administrator, Bolden is the face behind Curiosity’s planned two-year mission and several other projects such as next year’s launch of MAVEN.

“MAVEN (Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) is an upper atmosphere data gathering satellite,” Bolden explained. “What we hope to do is use this to get additional information about the upper atmosphere of Mars, to better enable us to plan the entry and landing for follow-on missions behind Curiosity. With the ultimate mission being a human mission in the mid-2030s.”

Credited for his support of NASA and its missions, such as Curiosity, Congressman Chaka Fattah is an active NASA enthusiast, according to Bolden.

“He is a strong advocate of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education which is something the president pushes and we at NASA strongly promote,” Bolden said. “He is a very strong advocate of technology development to keep this nation first in the world, and he pushes us to do that. He always asks tough questions, but he’s always encouraging — and I don’t think we ever accomplished anything that I haven’t received a congratulatory phone call from him expressing his support, and that of the people of Philadelphia.”

Fattah is a senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and related agencies. Earlier this week, he was in Pasadena for the Mars landing. Shortly after Curiosity’s touchdown was confirmed, Fattah was in the control room.

“NASA has always been a model of public and private partnering — our brightest home-grown entrepreneurs and innovators working hand-in-hand with our government to push back the frontiers of space and science,” Fattah said in a released statement. “Administrator Charles Bolden and the whole dedicated NASA team are to be commended as they tackle this crucial next stage and satisfy our ‘Curiosity.’”

Another interest for the administrator is to have space flights accessible to the masses by 2030, or even sooner.

“Realistically seeing how we progress, how budgets have sort of impeded the type of process you would ideally like to have,” Bolden said. “We’re not quite on the verge of space flight for the masses just yet. We are, however, on the door step of opening up the opportunity for space flight to many more people than could fly during the days when only governments flew people into space.

“I think beginning perhaps next year, with flights by entities like Virgin Galactic, you’re going to see that there’re going to be people who initially will fly what we call suborbital missions. That’s a mission where they launch from somewhere like Mahogany, California, go into the edges of outer space — the way that Alan Shepard did — and then come back down to Earth and land on a runway somewhere. That should be happening as early as next year. That’s our hope.”