Opinion: What happened to Charlie Bolden?
Major General Charles Frank Bolden, Jr. is one of NASA’s most accomplished astronauts. A former Marine Naval Aviator and test pilot, Bolden was selected as an astronaut in 1980. He served as astronaut safety officer and was the first astronaut to ride the slide wire escape system from the launch pad. Since he became NASA Administrator, Bolden’s comments have ventured into some…interesting territory and suggest that the man who rode fire to orbit – is not the same man we seem to be dealing with today.
Bolden is a veteran of four space shuttle flights. In January of 1986 served as the pilot of the shuttle Columbia on STS-61C. In April of 1990 he piloted the shuttle Discovery on STS-31 to an altitude of four hundred miles, where the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed. In March of 1992, Bolden commanded the shuttle Atlantis on STS-45. It was the first Spacelab mission dedicated to NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, the precursor to the Earth Science Enterprise. Bolden’s last flight was STS-60 in February of 1994. He commanded Discovery on the first Russian/American international space mission. During which, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev flew as mission specialist.
In 2009, Bolden was named NASA Administrator by President Barack Obama, but even before that he was thrust into the public eye. In 2007 the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex opened the Shuttle Launch Experience, a ride that simulates the sounds and sensations of the shuttle launch. Bolden serves as the virtual host of the experience, describing the shuttle system, the staging, the gravitational pull during liftoff and ascent, and at the end of the show promises “Maybe someday you’ll fly with us!”
Bolden was therefore already beloved and respected figure both inside and outside NASA when he was took over as Administrator, and many were pleased by the selection.
So . . . what happened?
Since 2010, Bolden’s tenure has been a study of bad management, foolish comments, demotivational decisions, malapropisms, and testimonies before Congress that have been downright silly. From one of the most acclaimed of NASA astronauts, Bolden’s star has fallen very far. So much so that he is almost universally loathed by the space community.
What went wrong?
Well, it’s not all Bolden’s fault. In February of 2010, President Obama shut down the Constellation Program for reasons which are still, if not entirely clear, then at least hotly debated. Bolden had no choice but to follow Presidential orders and terminate the program that was seven years and ten billion dollars along. Needless to say, the president’s wasteful decision – was also placed at Bolden’s feet.
In the vacuum left by the loss of Constellation, Bolden tried to sell the new direction for NASA, but as there was no new direction, he faltered. In the aftermath of the cancellation, he delivered a speech that made many lofty promises, but offered nothing practical.
“The President has laid out a dynamic plan for NASA to invest in critical and transformative technologies,” Bolden said on February 1, 2010–the seventh anniversary of the Columbia disaster. “These will enable our path beyond low-Earth-orbit (LEO) through development of new launch and space transportation technologies, nimble construction technologies in orbit, and new operations capabilities. Imagine trips to Mars that take weeks instead of nearly a year; people fanning out across the inner Solar System, exploring the Moon, asteroids and Mars nearly simultaneously in a steady stream of firsts, and imagine this being done collaboratively with nations around the world.”
Well . . . yes, those things are easy to imagine. But where’s the rocket? Where’s the timeline? What’s the mission?
Constellation offered specific hardware–the Ares I rocket, the Ares V rocket, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, the Altair lunar lander. Constellation offered a specific timeline–first crewed Orion flight by 2025, first crewed return to the Moon by 2030. Bolden laid out no specifics, only a stream of “imagine”s.
Congress refused to abandon the Constellation Program entirely, voting to retain the Orion capsule, renamed the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and ordered a new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System–which for some time Bolden refused to work on until Congress sent him a scathing letter reminding him that the SLS was “the law.”
In 2010 Bolden repeatedly justified the cancellation of the Constellation Program on the grounds that it was not properly funded. Specifically, he said, “The vision was great. The problem was we did not get the funding that would have been required to support that vision.” Yet in 2011, when asked what guarantee there was that the SLS would not be terminated by the next administration for budgetary reasons, he said, “I’m not sure that I said ending the Constellation Program was ‘purely budgetary’ because it wasn’t purely budgetary. If it were purely budgetary we’d be right back where we were real quick.”
But in was on July 7, 2010 that Bolden made his most famous, most outrageous, and most widely lampooned statement from which even President Obama distanced himself: “When I became the NASA administrator–or before I became the NASA administrator—(President Obama) charged me with three things. One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science, math and engineering.”
Bolden’s bizarre speeches, strange statements, and inexplicable behavior continue. Since the end of the shuttle program, the United States has been dependent on the Russian Soyuz for transportation of American astronauts to the International Space Station. This week Bolden testified before Congress about the danger of Russia freezing American astronauts out of access to the ISS.
Bolden said that if Russia were to do that, the ISS should be shut down, and he said, “I would go to the president and recommend we terminate SLS and Orion.”
Although not as ridiculous as his comment about helping Muslims “feel good” about their contribution to science, Bolden’s statement about the ISS and SLS is even more insane, far more dangerous–and makes even less sense. SLS and Orion are designed for deep space exploration beyond LEO, where the ISS is a strictly LEO endeavor. It will be commercial crew vehicles such as SpaceX’s Dragon capsule that allow us to regain the ability to launch astronauts to the ISS. There is virtually no connection between the ISS and SLS. Why in the world would he want to shut down SLS and Orion if the ISS is closed down? The only conceivable answer is that he wants to shut down Orion and SLS anyway and is grasping for an excuse. Russia’s actions in the Ukraine have provided him with just such a reason.
Bolden’s behavior as NASA Administrator has been inexplicable. Other Administrators have done questionable things, but at least followed predictable patterns. Dan Goldin was a man of great vision who wished to explore the stars on small budgets. Sean O’Keefe was a businessman who sought to manage NASA responsibly. Mike Griffin was a supporter of Constellation and the Ares rockets.
Bolden? What is his vision, if any? He seems to just be muddling along, making a fool of himself while doing whatever Obama wants. When he offers something of his own, it either involves further destruction of our manned space flight capability or . . . just makes no sense at all.
Considering his Marine Corps background, his years as a test pilot, and his space flight experience, he cannot possibly be a stupid man. It’s also hard to believe anyone who has flown the space shuttle at a record 400-mile altitude can have no vision for the future of space flight. He obviously is a poor public speaker who easily stumbles into idiotic statements; he is not to be hated for that. However, his atrocious management of NASA is a hard to explain and a even harder to forgive.
So what happened to Charlie Bolden? Perhaps he is just a pilot, with a talent for flying spaceships, but no skill at running a large organization. Perhaps he’s overwhelmed by the task of running a sprawling space program with minimal funding. Or perhaps he’s just following orders; his consistently destructive recommendations to the President and Congress are not those of a man who wants the United States to excel, or even succeed, in space flight; they are the actions of a man who was placed in charge of an organization for the task of dismantling it–which is the one task at which he is excelling.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The SpaceFlight Group
Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.