Reaching for the stars requires tremendous dedication and tenacity to reach great heights. It takes strength, knowledge, and the willingness to help others along the way. UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography recognized these qualities in retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General and former NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr., who was awarded the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest on Oct. 17, 2017. (View Gallery.)
The Scripps-given Nierenberg Prize recognizes an individual’s outstanding research contributions and public service. It is presented annually by the Nierenberg family in honor of William Nierenberg, an esteemed scientist and former director of Scripps (1965-1986).
Bolden served 34 years as Marine Corps General, fourteen years as a NASA astronaut—during which time he flew four space shuttle missions—and eight years as NASA Administrator, a position appointed by President Barack Obama.
A few hours before receiving the Nierenberg Prize, Bolden had lunch and a lively discussion with more than thirty Scripps graduate students. His close involvement with the United States government sparked questions about climate change, deep space exploration, the future of human spaceflight advancements, and leadership advice. It was an experience that delved into his personal insight of his accomplished career.
“Don’t be bashful about asking questions,” said Bolden charismatically, encouraging an open, receptive forum to connect with students.
An inside glimpse into Bolden’s boyhood dream to become a naval officer was a lesson on the pursuit of one’s passion and consistent perseverance over challenging obstacles. He was committed to his goals and wrote fervently to President Lyndon B. Johnson for an appointment to the Naval Academy. He never received a written reply from the executive office; instead, a federal recruiter showed up at his doorstep and fulfilled his self-identified “destiny.”
However, the experience proved to be discouraging. It was a time of racial segregation in the South during the 1960s that almost made Bolden quit. The loving support from his parents helped Bolden overcome adversity, and soon enough, he graduated from the academy in four years.
This story left one student to ask, “What’s your advice on when to ask for help? And who to ask for help?” to which Bolden stressed the importance of mentorship and sponsorship. He emphasized the importance of seeking the potential in others who seek out our help in order to inspire a new generation of leaders. Without the colonels and support he received in the Marine Corps, Bolden would not have had the confidence to become a space pilot at NASA.
“Take care of your people, and your people will take care of you,” said Bolden.
Another question addressed the skepticism of climate change and its future attention amidst a presidential administration that is not keen on the matter. Erica Ferrer, a first-year marine biology graduate student, asked Bolden for his opinion. What followed was advice on how to find hope and positivity in an unpredictable situation.
“Sit down and have a conversation with them,” said Bolden.
During his eight-year tenure as President Obama’s NASA Administrator, Bolden said he witnessed the “deterioration of congeniality to outright hate and disdain” regarding the lack of bipartisan cooperation among political leaders to fully represent their congressional districts and the needs of their people. He notes that compassion and active listening are solutions to finding common ground. However, these aspects are commonly overlooked and often forgotten.
Despite the apathy from executive leadership, Bolden prides himself as the “eternal optimist.” He still sees areas of the country innovating sustainable ways of living as we speak.
Curious about his space missions, students were intrigued to hear about the sensation of floating in zero gravity.
“I think everyone knows what the word ‘awesome’ means. You go through all these emotions. It actually feels worse than the launch because your body is going to be accustomed to being in this weightless environment and all of a sudden, it feels like A LOT,” said Bolden, recalling his return back to Earth.
His experience as a space pilot offered more suggestions as to how quality assurance of spacecraft carriers and specific technological improvements can support better explorations. Supersonic retropropulsion, a shuttle that would allow a spacecraft to travel fast, yet quietly, is a major experiment that will supposedly proxy commercial space flights to Mars.
“I think that the future of deep space exploration is critically tied to the success of commercial and entrepreneurial space,” said Bolden.
“It was a really interesting mix of topics that he told us about. His experience at NASA and his experiences growing up and trying to fight for his place at the Naval Academy were really inspirational,” said Margaret Lindeman, a second-year physical oceanography Ph.D. student. “I appreciate his perspective on how the situation that we’re in now ties back to where he came from.”
During the Nierenberg Prize lecture, Bolden emphasized the crucial advancements in space technology that are needed to expand our knowledge of the universe such as New Horizons and Exploration Mission I. He hopes for continued international cooperation that fosters diplomacy and “nontraditional partnerships on technologies of space, economics, and health benefits.” With this global effort, he believes that humankind can step over boundaries and guide explorations to Mars to better understand the solar system, Earth’s properties, and spacecraft engineering.
According to Bolden, projects such as the International Space Station and the Space Launch System are examples of peaceful and fruitful coexistence, especially where future explorations of the universe can bring a “peaceful, green future.”
“This is someone who I’ve wanted to meet for a very long time. I’ve been following him ever since he became an administrator for NASA,” said Daniel Conley, a fourth-year biological oceanography PhD student. “This has been an amazing talk.”
- Katherine Aranda
Credit: Katie Gardner Photography