By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Astronaut Charles Bolden visited more than 400 enthusiastic students and guests last week in the Jefferson-Houston School gymnasium. Sharing his experiences working for NASA as an astronaut and administrator, he emphasized the importance of science, technology, engineering and math education for students and how it applies in today’s space program.
Bolden kept the atmosphere loose, encouraging students to ask questions at any time and reassuring them there was no such thing as a dumb question. Students kept their hands up for upwards of an hour to get the astronaut’s attention. With curiosities piqued, the creative questions were flowing.
“How many people have left the planet?”
“Have you ever been in an extraterrestrial situation?”
“How long does it take to get to the moon?”
“Are we sending a dog to Mars?”
And, from a fifth grader, “What is the physical reaction of gravitational pull when you leave the atmosphere?”
Bolden told students with hard work, some of them could go to Mars and the International Space Station. He said studying hard, working hard and not being afraid to fail would allow students to achieve what they want in life.
As a young black man growing up in Columbia, S.C., Bolden said the thought of becoming an astronaut never even crossed his mind. Little did the young Bolden know, he would travel into space four times — twice commanding and twice piloting missions on the space shuttles Columbia, Challenger and Endeavor — and be appointed by the first black president as administrator of the nation’s space agency, NASA.
The space shuttle played an important role in diversifying the space program, he said.
“The shuttle was an incredible technological invention. I would never have been able to go into space without the shuttle,” he told students. “The space program before that wasn’t diverse at all. If you look around this room, and look around your class, you see how different you all are, you have lots of races, lots of cultures … some of you represent different countries.
“The space shuttle allowed us to bring different people, just like this school, into space. As of today, I can’t even count the number of nations that have gone into space because of the shuttle.”
Bolden had big dreams as a young man, despite the barriers that he encountered growing up.
“My big motivator from the seventh grade on was getting an appointment to the United States Naval Academy. I grew up in the segregated South and trying to get an appointment out of people like [senators] Olan D. Johnston, Strom Thurmond and Albert Watson, well, they said, ‘It ain’t gonna happen.’ So, I wrote to the vice president [Lyndon B. Johnson].”
Bolden got the attention he wanted and was later visited by a Navy recruiter and former federal judge tasked by Johnson to identify qualified young black men to attend the service academies. The appointment he was determined to earn became a reality.
Upon graduation, Bolden joined the U.S. Marine Corps. His first weeks in basic officer training in Quantico were where Bolden made a key career decision.
“I hated crawling around in the mud, so I needed an alternative,” he said. “And the best alternative was to go to [Naval Air Station] Pensacola and do something I said I would never do and that was fly airplanes. That’s how I got into aviation.”
Having been impressed with one of his instructors, who was a test pilot, Bolden continued pushing the limits and went to United States Naval Test Pilot School in Patuxent River, Md. It was there Bolden met the first black astronaut, Ronald McNair, and was so inspired by his courage that Bolden applied to the astronaut program.
Both of his parents were teachers and assumed Bolden would go into the Navy and be safe on a ship.
“During Vietnam, my mom was raging,” he said. “When I told them I was going to be a Marine they both just went berserk. And then, when I mentioned I was going to become a test pilot they didn’t like that either.
“My mother didn’t like anything I did!”
Students, Mayor Bill Euille, ACPS Superintendent Alvin Crawley, school board chairwoman Karen Graf and school board members Bill Campbell and Marc Williams, listened keenly as Bolden described what it was like to go into space. Students sat with mouths agape.
“You’re laying on your back for several hours waiting, and then all of the sudden, when it’s time to liftoff, BOOM!” Bolden said. “You feel this explosion in the rockets and all of the sudden the vehicle goes VROOM. And you can feel yourself liftoff relatively gently, but you start going really fast and you go from go from 0 to 17,500 miles per hour in eight-and-a-half minutes. The speed at which we go eventually gets to what we call orbital velocity. That’s fast enough to keep you going around earth.”
At the end of Bolden’s presentation, he described the amazing view of Earth from the space shuttle and how peaceful the planet seems from above. The astronaut encouraged the students and said even the smallest of voices can make a difference in the world if they set their minds to it.
He shared the story of Nkosi Johnson, a 12-year-old South African boy who inspired the world not to stereotype people to with AIDS but to fight the disease. Before his death in 2001, Johnson left an uplifting message for the world:
“Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place you are,” he said.
After the presentation, the more than 400 inspired students left the gymnasium and participated in hands-on experiments designed by NASA educational specialists.
The future may be unpredictable, but what is certain is that some of those Jefferson-Houston students went home that day with the revelation that whatever they want to do in life is obtainable with hard work and determination.