First Black NASA Administrator Charles Bolden 'Pleaded' To Get Into Naval Academy : The Two-Way Bolden grew up in segregated South Carolina. One of his state senators, Strom Thurmond, blocked his efforts to get to the Naval Academy, but a Hail-Mary letter to Lyndon Johnson helped him get there.

First Black NASA Administrator Charles Bolden 'Pleaded' To Get Into Naval Academy

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We are about to meet a man who dreams big, always has. Charles Bolden grew up in South Carolina wanting to go to the Naval Academy. He did. Then he became a combat aviator, astronaut, Marine Corps major general. And now he leads NASA. Bolden has an easy-going style that can be persuasive. He has been pushing Congress for more funding so U.S. astronauts can stop relying on Russia to get them into space.

CHARLES BOLDEN: The primary focus of NASA's efforts today is getting to Mars. And there is building consensus politically, economically - it's everywhere, it's around the world - that humans should be working to get ourselves to Mars, get to another planet. Mars happens to be the one that satisfies most of the reasons that you want to go to another planet.

GREENE: What's the argument for Mars over, you know, Venus or (laughter)...

BOLDEN: Mars because scientists - people much smarter than I am - believe that Mars at one time was very similar to Earth. In its millions and millions of years of existence, it used to be fertile. It still has lots of water that's frozen and trapped under its surface. But we believe that Mars at one time could have harbored life, could do it today. We just don't know. We can't prove it. And we're certain that Mars can sustain human life if we provide the right kinds of equipment. People say, why do you need a big rocket like the Space Launch System? We need it because we've got about 130 metric tons of stuff that we want to send.

GREENE: That you got to bring. Yeah.

BOLDEN: We want to send prefab material and other kinds of things so the robots can construct the habitat so that humans don't have to do that.

GREENE: I do love hearing you talk about this because it's - you talk about it as casually as like, you know, I think I want to build a house on the outskirts of Denver, and I'm going to go visit the neighborhood and just do a drive-by.

BOLDEN: That's what it is. We're talking to companies like Hercules. We're talking to companies like Kellogg Brown & Root. We're talking to engineering firms who do stuff in remote environments today about ideas of how do you put humans into this remote environment? Just think about going to some third-world country. We're going to the fourth rock from the sun. And so, you know, that kind of stuff demands that NASA get out of its old way of doing business and work hand-in-hand with industry and academia and entrepreneurs, people who have really good ideas about how we can do this kind of stuff. And that's why people are excited about what we're doing.

GREENE: Well, can I ask you about the new way of doing business. Because it strikes me, we hear so much about industry and its role in space travel - you know, private companies like SpaceX and Boeing.


GREENE: Is there a risk that NASA could at some point get in almost a space race with some of these companies, that the companies could sort of move ahead of NASA and start doing these explorations without you?

BOLDEN: I cannot believe that American industry, you know, would walk away from a goal that is as noble as putting humans on another planet and decide that they're going to go somewhere else. I can't imagine that our partners, our international partners, would walk away and decide that they want to go to somewhere else as long as we accept our responsibility for leadership. Now, that's the biggest challenge about getting humans to Mars is the American people and the Congress and future administrations deciding that they like the challenge and that they are leaders and that they want to remain the leader. That's tough.

GREENE: You are the first African-American administrator of NASA.

BOLDEN: Unimportant.

GREENE: Unimportant.

BOLDEN: Unimportant if there is no second (laughter). Being first is OK. But if there is no second, it doesn't count.

GREENE: It strikes me, I mean, you are doing hard work now to make NASA more diverse. I would - just before I let you go to - I'd love if you could share your own story. Because I know you grew up in South Carolina - the segregated South, right?


GREENE: And you had to literally end up writing letters to the vice president of the United States, Lyndon Johnson at the time, to get yourself on a path to NASA. What happened?

BOLDEN: I wrote the president because I had gotten to know him through letters. And he had told me, you know, hang on and write when you're a senior. And I wrote him in desperation. I just told him, I said, you know, I don't have a way to get to the Naval Academy. I can't get an appointment from South Carolina from my congressman and nor my two state senators. And a recruiter came to my house in a few weeks and said, hey, I understand you want to go to the Naval Academy. And the president sent out a retired federal judge all over the country looking for qualified young men of color to go to the service academies. And he came to my school. And all that turned out with me getting an appointment from Congressman William Dawson in Chicago, Ill. And...

GREENE: Chicago, Ill. And that's because South Carolina lawmakers would not support you?

BOLDEN: That's right. That's the way it happened.

GREENE: Did they make it clear to you why they weren't supporting you?

BOLDEN: It was clear why they were not supporting me. And it was because of the times. They were just not about to appoint a, you know, a black to the Naval Academy or to any academy. My mother went to her grave believing that Strom Thurmond probably helped because every milestone in my life after I got to the Naval Academy, as long as he lived, I got a handwritten note from him, you know, saying, congratulations.

GREENE: From Strom Thurmond?

BOLDEN: From Strom Thurmond.

GREENE: This is a former South Carolina senator, who is known as a segregationist.

BOLDEN: Former South Carolina senator who told me, no way are you going to get an appointment from me to go to the Naval Academy. And yet, every milestone in my life, he sent me a note.

GREENE: And how did you - what did you take from that?

BOLDEN: I took that even people who seem to be evil or seem to be bad, deep down inside they know what's right. And they want to do it. And they will try to find a way, you know, to make good things happen. I am the eternal optimist. And I'm an idealist. And, you know, I just - I go around and try to tell people all the time, especially young kids, just don't ever give up on a dream that you have. If you are willing to study and work really hard, and you don't mind falling down and getting back up, if you're not afraid of failure, things are going to work. That's the way that NASA works. I mean, we had three devastating accidents. And we just observed those within the last few weeks - Apollo 1, you know, STS-51-L and STS-107, Challenger in Columbia. And a lesser organization would have just folded, would have said, OK, let's quit. And we didn't do that. You know, I was there when we lost Challenger, and I asked myself if this was really what I wanted to do. I had just come back from my first flight in space 10 days before we lost Challenger. It took me about a nanosecond to decide that I was in the right business. This was what I wanted to do.

GREENE: Charles Bolden, thanks so much for talking to us.

BOLDEN: Thank you.

GREENE: Charles Bolden is the administrator at NASA.

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