General Charles F. Bolden, Jr

Doctor of Engineering General Charles Bolden

Thursday 30 January 2014 at 11.15 am - Orator: Professor Nick Lieven

Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor,

The United States of America is not a nation known for understatement.  As you can imagine, I was astonished to see that the Head of NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, is simply referred to as ‘Administrator’.  In nobody’s book is Charlie Bolden an ‘administrator’.  A decorated pilot and astronaut who now leads the world’s pre-eminent scientific and exploratory research organisation simply cannot be described as a functionary. 

It is interesting to go back to see how Administrator Bolden’s rise to the top of the scientific tree has come about.  Let me first say that this has not happened by accident.  Charlie Bolden was a driven youth.  From an early age, his heart was set on the Navy.   In an interview in 2004, he described his motivation saying “I saw a programme on television called ‘Men of Annapolis’  [the US Naval Academy] when I was in 7th or 8th grade, fell in love with the uniform, fell in love with the fact they seemed to get all the good-looking girls”.  I can’t comment on the girl part, but the career aspect he was not going to leave to chance.

From this age, Charlie set about making himself known.  He wrote to his Congressman and his Senators every year from 9th grade saying that he wanted to go to the Naval Academy.  And every year he would get letters back saying “Well it’s not your senior year yet, so just kind of relax and enjoy life”.  He would then reply saying “I just wanted you to know who I was because I’m serious about it.” Well indeed he was. 

Sure enough, in due course, he was admitted to the Naval Academy.  This did not go easily.  As he describes it, his first year there was typical – “just bad and horrible”.  He’d phone home every weekend saying he wanted to come back.  His father kept him there by saying “Stay one more week and we’ll talk about it.” So he got through the first year.  His driving ambition was to become a Navy SEAL – Sea, Air and Land.  The only thing he was sure about was that he did not want to become a Marine because he thought they were crazy, and he didn’t want to fly aeroplanes because they were inherently dangerous, and his mum had always told him “I did not raise a fool”.  So what did he do?…he went into the Marines and started flying.

He married his wife Jackie and went to the Pensacola Air Station to start flying, where he openly admits he caught the flying bug.  The result of this was that he went Vietnam and flew over a hundred missions. 

Charlie Bolden had his sights set on higher things.  He now wanted to move on to be a test pilot and after seven years of applying to Test Pilot School, he decided to do a Masters degree in Systems Management at the University of Southern California.  This was to serve him well later in his career.  Whilst at USC he was finally admitted to Test Pilot School, by this time having acquired a small child and baby.  They moved to Maryland so he could start his training.  This inspired him to move on to yet greater things and he learnt that NASA was now starting to accept applications for the astronaut programme, the natural progression for a test pilot.

At this point, there seemed to be some self-doubt.  Charlie knew who astronauts were and he couldn’t imagine being one, as he described it “they were all white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, all test pilots and about 5 foot 10.” They all looked alike and he was none of these.  But he applied, inspired by his colleagues saying “you probably won’t be selected but you don’t know if you don’t apply”.  Sure enough, he got the call saying “if you’re still interested, how do you fancy being an astronaut?”

That started 14 years in the astronaut office for NASA, which as you may not know isn’t a bundle of laughs.  The first six months is simply classroom work then you get assigned to a senior astronaut, someone who has got experience who then shows you around.  Charlie was fortunate to have two mentors, Joe Allen and Bill Thornton, which enabled him to participate in the Skylab experiments and Ground Test programmes.  His training developed in the most exciting years of the NASA Space Programme: the Shuttle.  The Shuttle explorations were at their peak and this is in fact where Charlie made his flight and scientific contributions to the NASA programme.  He estimates that he did 2500 – 3000 flight simulations in order to fly the Shuttle four times – two of which he commanded.  Those four missions on the Shuttle were involved in the early development of Head-Up displays, and carried out up to 12 scientific experiments on each mission. 

After relentless training, Charlie’s first mission was on Columbia which went without a hitch but required four attempts to land, coming down in White Sands in New Mexico.  As he said, “Everything worked except God.  God didn’t co-operate”.  So having intended to land at the Kennedy Space Centre, they went on to Edwards.  That minor glitch aside, the flight was a huge success, carrying out space lab experiments and all the other experiments they couldn’t get in on other previous flights.  He describes it as being “almost like an end-of-year clearance sale”.  Just a very expensive one!

His second flight was to be the Commander of the Shuttle launching the Hubble Space Telescope.  This brought Charlie to Bristol.  So of course we now claim that his subsequent successes are entirely attributable to the visits he made to this city [I’m not sure we can do that – but it is worth a try].

Whilst in Bristol he trained to deploy the Hubble, solar array in a water table at Filton.  As with everything with NASA, it was practiced repeatedly until it was perfect.  Of course during the flight not everything went according to plan -  a software bug endeavoured to slow them down.  Once this was sorted out, the Hubble Telescope was successfully deployed and they returned to earth safely.  It is interesting to reflect on the contribution the Space Telescope has made to the scientific community, not least determining the rate of expansion of the universe – and scientific discoveries don’t get any bigger than that.

Such was his success as a Commander, Charlie was bestowed the honour of becoming a Cape Crusader, one of the outstanding jobs in the astronaut office, working at Cape Canaveral hand in hand with the engineers physically putting the vehicles together and integrating the scientific payloads.  It was during this period of his life that he came across one of his colleagues wisest phrases, the so-called Hoots Law.  Hoot Gibson had acted as mentor to Charlie and after a particularly traumatic simulator test, Hoot made the comment “No matter how bad things get, you can always make them worse”.  Something all of us should listen to no doubt.

It is worth mentioning that his final flight, perhaps the most iconic of all Shuttle flights, was to be Commander of STS-60, which was to be the first Russian-American mission – a diplomatic tour de force, not only flying an astonishingly complex aircraft, but with the whole world looking at how diplomacy could be resolved in zero atmosphere.  Having flown that mission successfully, and Russia and America emerging as best buddies…well something like that….Charlie moved on from NASA to resume his service as Commanding General of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in support of Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait.  Not surprisingly he was promoted to Major General in 1998 and became Deputy Commander of US Forces in Japan.  Clearly leaving NASA had not slowed him down.  Indeed during his service he acquired medals and honours reflecting his time at NASA, being inducted into the US Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2006, and was also awarded the Defence Superior Service medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross.  But he was not going to stop there…

In July 2009 President Barack Obama nominated Charlie to become the twelfth Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.  As such, his goal was to lead the team and manage the resources of all the agency’s missions.  One should bear in mind that NASA’s goal is not ‘to boldly go….’ but “to pioneer the future of space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research”, something which Charlie has achieved with complete distinction and leadership, and which he has demonstrated throughout his career.  As he himself has said, “STEM and hard work have enabled me to travel from the segregated South to space”.

Indeed we are very honoured to have you with us today.  And although we cannot bestow on you the unfathomable resources of NASA - we can give you a more deserving title than “Administrator”. 

Thus, Mr Deputy Vice-chancellor I commend to you Charles Frank Bolden as being eminently worth of the degree of Doctor of Engineering honoris causa


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