During training in a space shuttle simulator for his first flight as an astronaut, Charles Bolden misdiagnosed an engine problem, which led to the engine failing. Had it been an actual flight, he said to an audience of young African leaders recently, he and his crew would have been “dead in the water.”
But after that mistake, he went on to command three space shuttle flights, and today he holds the top job at NASA, the U.S. space agency.
Bolden’s persistence might be attributed to his background. An African American who grew up in segregated South Carolina, he couldn’t take much for granted. He dreamed of going to college at the U.S. Naval Academy, an elite school whose students are sponsored by members of Congress, but no member of South Carolina’s congressional delegation would sponsor him.
Eventually, he found sponsorship from a congressman from the Midwestern state of Illinois — a military veteran and one of the first blacks elected to Congress.
After graduating from the academy in 1968, Bolden flew more than 100 missions for the U.S. Marine Corps, became a test pilot and eventually applied to NASA’s astronaut program. “Be bold and fearless,” the NASA chief advised the 100 Mandela Washington Fellows he addressed in Washington in early August. People can recover from mistakes.
He told them that bold thinking is behind NASA’s recent accomplishments.
In July, an agency spacecraft reached the distant dwarf planet of Pluto after more than nine years in space. In March, NASA sent an American astronaut to live in space for a year. And today NASA employs more women in its science and engineering projects. Their contributions could help send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s.
Quoting the late Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of President John F. Kennedy, Bolden reminded his audience that youth around the world share a “closeness of their goals, their desires and their concerns and their hope for the future.”
“You are among your generation’s best and brightest,” Bolden said, encouraging them to join other young people to meet the challenges of the world today.