Just Asking: Charles Bolden, NASA administrator


(Joshua Yospyn/For The Washington Post)
Joe Heim
Writer and editor May 9

Charles Bolden, 67, was appointed in 2009 to lead the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Astronauts weren’t around when you were a kid. So what did you want to be when you grew up?

Joe Heim is an editor and writer for The Washington Post magazine where he writes Just Asking, a weekly Q&A column. He has recently written about candy, not saving for your kids for college, Downton Abbey, the role of presidents as consolers-in-chief and about Washingtonians personal experiences with gun violence. View Archive

Yes, they were! Astronauts were very prominent because there was Buck Rogers. And I saw people going to Mars every weekend at the theater in Columbia, South Carolina.

You grew up in the segregated South. How was it possible to envision a path to becoming a major general in the Marines and leading the nation’s space program?

It wasn’t, and I didn’t. But I had seen a program on television called “Men of Annapolis” … and from seventh grade on, that became my single focus in life, becoming a midshipman at the Naval Academy. And it was for a very trivial reason. I loved the uniform, and the campus looked absolutely breathtaking, and there were lots of girls who came there on the weekend. You’ve got to remember, I was a teenager.

You’re one of only 543 people in history who have ever traveled in space. That’s an incredibly select group.

It’s a lot more than it used to be.

When you’re in a supermarket checkout line, do you ever just want to tell people, “Hey, I was a commander on the space shuttle”?

Nope. Never. I tend to be very private about it. People wonder, “Why don’t you talk about it?” But my experience has been that people who have to go around and talk about what they do, it’s probably not worth it in the first place, and they greatly overrate their value to anything.

Space exploration is becoming more of a private enterprise. Is that a good thing?

I don’t think space exploration is becoming more of a private enterprise. That’s where we want it to go, but today there hasn’t been a private enterprise go to Mars or go to the moon. Private enterprise talks while NASA acts. And that’s not meant to sound like an arrogant statement, but we’re trying to help people realize dreams, and we’re trying to help private enterprise and entrepreneurs realize their dreams of doing the stuff that up until now only nations have done. The problem that private enterprise finds is that it’s hard.

Over 200,000 people have signed up for a one-way ticket to Mars? Should we send them?

Yeah. If they want to go. The problem is you don’t have a way to do it. Right now that’s science fiction.

Do you ever have dreams about space?

No. I didn’t even dream about space when I was in space. I don’t remember dreaming on orbit. ... You’re just too tired to dream. I don’t dream of space. I dream a lot of things about my grandkids.

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