Published: March 29, 2023 By

Charles Bolden with a group of bioastronautics students during a tour of the Aerospace Building.
Headline Image: Bolden talking to students in the Aerospace Building Auditorium.
Above: Charles Bolden with a group of bioastronautics students during a tour of the Aerospace Building.

Former NASA administrator and astronaut Charles Bolden addressed University of Colorado Boulder students in a special seminar on the past and future of spaceflight and space exploration last week.

Bolden served as the leader of NASA from 2009-2017 and flew on four space shuttle missions in the 1980s and 1990s. He delivered a presentation before more than 200 students, faculty, and staff in the CU Boulder Aerospace building on Friday, March 24.

Bolden on the importance of NASA to the United States

“We turned science fiction into science fact and made the impossible possible. I believe we are the strongest soft-power tool this nation has.”

On how international partnerships are key to maintaining and growing manned spaceflight and exploration

“Everyone who has been through the U.S. spaceflight program at NASA has friends in at least one other country in the world. Those kind of friendships, those kind of bonds are really important.”

He said international partners cemented the political will and funding for long-term success with ISS and the Artemis program, with each partnering nation helping to pull the others forward.

“I think NASA’s doing a really good job. We need something like the consortium of nations that built the ISS. Orion’s critical component is the service module. That is not an American service module. That is built by the European Space Agency. We got a lot of criticism when we put them in the critical path. Almost every project NASA flies today has some level of international and academic involvement.”

On the legacy of the Space Shuttle program

“Its legacy – taking seven, sometimes eight people into space to live and work – It was the first time sending people into space who were not test pilots, who were not white, 5’10” men. It let everyone in this room dream of going into space. That’s the legacy of shuttle.”

On why his favorite project at NASA is not the shuttle or the International Space Station.

Bolden said it is instead SERVIR - To Serve, a joint initiative by NASA and the US Agency for International Development. It has operations in Kenya, Nepal, Niger, and Thailand. Stations collect earth science data that is archived in real time to help with disaster planning, disaster resilience, and to manage challenges of food security, water resources, and land use changes.

“The humanitarian stuff that it does makes it my very favorite project in all of NASA.”

Charles Bolden speaking to students.
Charles Bolden speaking during the seminar with students.

On how success is helping your organization and your people shine

“All of you are going to be in a position somewhere where you’re not going to be the boss, but you’re going to want the boss to look good so the organization can look good.”

In leadership positions, he also emphasized the importance of trusting your staff, relaying a memory from his time as a fighter pilot in Vietnam when he decided to take on plane maintenance as well.

“I’m under the airplane and I’m cranking away with a wrench and I felt this tap on my shoulder. ‘Get out from under my damn airplane. Your job is to fly, his job is to fix. Don’t mess with his job.’”

“NASA isn’t worth (anything) without the 18,000 civil servants and the 40,000 contractors who support it. My job when I was the administrator was to provide a shield for the people who work there and ensure their success, to facilitate the success of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin and little companies. Take care of your people. If you’re worried about you, you’re headed the wrong way. Trust and take care of your people and they’ll take care of you.”

Highlighting big things CU Boulder is doing in space

He discussed the Emirates Mars Mission, which was built at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics on campus. “A massive partner in that endeavor was CU. You built stuff, you helped them, you mentored them and helped them through. They became only the second nation in the history of the world to successfully get to Mars in the first attempt.”

He also highlighted the work going on with CU Boulder’s BioServe Space Technologies, which builds and operates space hardware and research missions, conducting regular uplinks from the Aerospace Building’s Payload Operations Center with astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

“When Prof. Jim Voss and I were astronauts at NASA the only people who talked to the International Space Station were called CapComs. That’s ancient history today.”

Additional Photos

Bolden in the bioastronautics flight simulator.

Charles Bolden with his wife Alexis Walker, chief of staff Carolyn Bird, and Professor Brian Argrow in the lobby of the Aerospace Building in front of the River of Stars Mural.

Bolden meeting with students in the RECUV UAV Fabrication lab.

From left, Prof. Jim Voss, Suzan Voss, and Charles Bolden. Voss and Bolden were both astronauts in the Space Shuttle Program at the same time in the 1980s and 1990s.

The student question portion of Bolden's seminar.

Bolden speaking to students during the seminar.