When Charles Bolden enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy for college, he was absolutely sure of two things. The first was that he was never, ever going to fly airplanes. The second was that he was definitely not joining the Marine Corps when he graduated.
Bolden would, of course, go on to do both those things and more, attaining the rank of major general in the USMC, logging over 6,000 hours flying time, and spending more than 28 days in space on four separate Space Shuttle missions. Today, he's the administrator of NASA. In this installment of our What Was It? series, he tells us how he got there.
io9: What was it that first inspired you to become involved in science, and pursue it professionally?
CB: In my case, it goes back to my childhood. My mom and dad were teachers; my mother was a librarian at elementary, middle, and high school levels, and my father was a high school teacher, so they really encouraged — mandated, really — my brother and me to study.
But I think the main, key thing that happened was, in middle school, I had two male teachers growing up in South Carolina (that was unusual back then). One was a math teacher, the other one was a science teacher, and in the case of the science teacher, he really encouraged us to get involved in science fairs. I started doing science fair projects, fell in love with it and never looked back. So that was the beginning of my real interest in science.
io9: Did you know from an early age that you would pursue something space-related?
CB: Oh, I had no clue. In fact, when I graduated from high school in South Carolina, the only thing I knew I wanted to do was go to the Naval Academy, and I didn't even know why — other than the fact that they had really good looking uniforms. I knew that you had to join the Navy or the Marine Corps when you graduated, but the only two things I knew for certain were: (1) I was not going to fly airplanes, and (2) I was definitely not joining the Marine Corps — I thought it was dangerous, and I didn't want to have anything to do with it. I had been on an airplane once, a little airplane, when I was eight years old. A friend of mine's father had a little Cessna or something, and I was totally unimpressed, so that was it for me.
But when I graduated, and accepted my commission in the Marine Corps intending to be an infantry officer, I found out I didn't like crawling around in the mud. An obvious alternative was to go to flight school. My wife was really excited about that, so we went to Pensacola. First time I got in an airplane then I fell in love with it, and then the rest is history.
I became interested in being a test pilot. It took a number of years of really studying hard, applying over, and over, and over again until I got accepted. And then, actually, the only reason I got accepted into the space program was I met the late Dr. Ron McNair, who was killed with the Challenger crew. Ron and I didn't know each other, but we'd grown up 42 miles from one another. He came to Patuxent River, Maryland, the place I was working as a test pilot; we talked for a long time about what it was like to be in the astronaut office; he asked me if I was going to apply, I said "No way," and he kind of goaded me on and said "That's stupid, not applying." So I decided I would, expecting there was no way in the world that I would ever be thought about. And I got invited by NASA to come to Houston and interview. I came back after that week and told my wife it was the most incredible experience I'd ever had, but that there was no way in the world was I going to be accepted — so I went back to being a test pilot. Months later, on my wife's birthday as a matter of fact, I got a telephone call from Houston saying "Hey, are you still interested in coming to the space program?" So that's how I got here.
io9: Apart from the motivation of your parents, your teachers and your peers, were there any books or media that inspired you to pursue science?
CB: I read science fiction a lot, and for me — not unlike many kids from my generation — Saturday mornings were for going to the theatre downtown and seeing Flash Gordon. It was either a western, or it was a science fiction movie, and my favorite was Flash Gordon. I was a big Lone Ranger Fan, too. And back then there was a cowboy named Lash LaRue, who had a whip, and all that stuff — so that's what I did, you know?
But again, even watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon while I was in flight school, I still didn't think I'd ever be in the space program; I thought it was something too far off. So there, the absolute critical thing in my life, was meeting Ron [McNair], and having him talk to me about what he was doing and why he thought I should go ahead and apply, so that was it.
io9: When you were growing up, the atmosphere surrounding space exploration was a lot more powerful on a national and global scale than it is today. What do you think kids who are interested in space and science look to today for that same sort of intellectual stimulation?
CB: We've gone through one of these kinds of things [Bolden pantomimes a roller coaster], you know? The good thing about the Shuttle program was that it made space flight something that was commonly known to everybody, but then everyone got used to it and really didn't pay much attention to it anymore.
Interestingly, as Shuttle has phased out, we're actively involved in the International Space Station, students — when I visit schools — are starting to pick up their interest again in exploring. I think they're excited about the prospect of actually being able to go into space themselves. They're excited about private companies becoming involved. I think a lot of them looked at the accomplishments of SpaceX and the Dragon and that got them really excited. Plus you've got things like Hubble, and we've got the Mars rover, Curiosity getting ready to land. I really think — what I hope — is that when Curiosity lands on Mars at the beginning of August, it's just going to blow everybody's mind, and we're going to see this explosion in interest in science the way it was during the Apollo era. That's our hope, anyway; we'll see whether we deliver.
What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted on io9 and Gizmodo that asks the luminaries of science and science fiction what inspired them to delve so deeply into the only kind of magic we have in the real world - science and technology. What was it that first opened their eyes? Find out more at What Was It?