Former NASA Administrator and retired Marine Corps Major General Charles Bolden Jr. joins host Ken Harbaugh to talk about his career, the growing commercial space industry, and how the new space economy intersects with national security concerns.
Major General Bolden is also the founder and CEO Emeritus of The Charles F. Bolden Group, a consortium of leaders focused on science and security. Learn more about their work at bolden.group and find Charles on Twitter at @cboldenjr.
ACME General: My guest today is Charles Bolden Jr., retired Marine Corps Major General, and the 12th Administrator of NASA. He’s also the founder of The Charles F. Bolden Group, which sits at the intersection of the new space economy and our national security interests. We’re talking today about the growing commercial space industry and the opportunities and challenges it presents for national defense. Administrator Bolden, thanks so much for coming on the show.
Charles Bolden: Well, Ken, it’s fine. I am glad to be with you, but I’ll make a deal with you so that I don’t have to call you Mr. Harbaugh. If you call me Charlie, I’ll call you Ken.
ACME General: That works for me, Charlie. Thank you. Before we get into the space conversation, I have got to ask you about a story I heard, about one of the key moments that set you on this path. Your acceptance to Annapolis. You were in high school in South Carolina and at that time, in the segregated south, the chance of you getting a congressional appointment was zero.
ACME General: Yet, you found a way. Tell us about the letter.
CB: Well, I had been communicating with the three members of the South Carolina delegation. I had been communicating with them since 9th grade and each year they would say, “Come back to us when you’re a senior and we’ll work on it.” Going into my senior year, I wrote them all and all said no way. My out was the Vice President of the United States, since he is eligible to make appointments. The Vice President is the master because the Vice President can appoint anybody from anywhere.
That’s the only person who can do that. So, I had been working with Vice President Lyndon Johnson for a couple of years. When my senior year rolled around, I was getting ready to write him. On the 22nd of November that year, 1963-
ACME General: ’63, yeah.
CB: … we were on the bus going down to Charleston, South Carolina with my football team, my high school football team, to play for the state championship when we got word that President Kennedy had been assassinated. So, immediately, in addition to being devastated by the loss of the president, I was devastated because I saw my hopes of going to the Naval Academy just disappear, since I wasn’t eligible for a presidential appointment. So, my mom and I talked. She said, “You’re not going to quit, are you?” I said, “Well, no, I guess I can try one more thing.” So, I typed out a letter and I’ve looked at it several times because it’s in the national archives.
I typed out a letter to President Lyndon Johnson explaining that I had been writing to him for several years and that he had promised to help me and that I realized I wasn’t eligible for a presidential appointment, but I really wanted to go to the Naval Academy and I needed help. I didn’t hear anything from him ever again, but within weeks a Navy recruiter came to my house and knocked on the door and said he understood I was interested in going to the Naval Academy. President Johnson sent out a retired federal judge around the country, Judge Bennett from Washington, DC, looking for qualified young black, and Hispanic men back then because the academies weren’t open to women.
When Judge Bennett came to my high school, he was able to firm up two of us, a classmate of mine, Wilson Rory, whose father was an active duty colonel in the army. So, Wilson got a presidential appointment and they arranged with the Naval Academy for me to get an appointment from Congressman William Dawson in Chicago, who coincidentally happened to be a black veteran who had helped to integrate the army in World War II, and was the only, at the time of his appointment of me, I think he may have been the only black member of the US Congress, but I’m not really certain. But I never met him, but I nonetheless went to the Naval Academy from Chicago, Illinois.
ACME General: I dug this out of a NASA oral history interview with you commenting on your arrival at Annapolis. You said, “The only things I knew at that time that I went to Annapolis was I was not going to be a Marine because I thought they were a little different, and I was not going to fly airplanes because that was inherently dangerous.” What happened?
CB: What happened was life. You’re familiar with the Naval Academy, but your audience may not be, but the Naval Academy, like all of the service academies, are organized into little subgroups. The student body at the Naval Academy is called the Brigade of Midshipmen, and it’s roughly 4,000 members by law. The 4,000 member brigade is divided into 36 companies. So, about 150 of the midshipmen spread across the four grades from freshman through senior are put together. I started out in 29th company for my first two years, ended up in 11th company my last two years. But my company officer, the commissioned officer responsible for the care and feeding of us young snotty nose kids was Major John Reily Love who came into my life when the brigade came back.
He was an incredible leader, reminded me of my dad. My dad was my high school football coach, and he was really tough, but imminently fair. That was Major Love. Through the course of the year, I watched his leadership style and he nurtured me. I had gained enough confidence to know that I could do anything that I wanted to. So, I probably was going to go drive ships. But as I thought about it, I said, I want to be like Major Love. I want to be a Marine and I want to be an infantry officer.
That was crazy at that time because it was the fall of 1967, the Tet Offensive had occurred that year. The life expectancy of, as you know, of a Marine Second Lieutenant was sometimes expressed in months. My family was not at all happy when I announced to them that I decided I was going to go in the Marine Corps. So, I accepted my commission in the Marine Corps. Went to the basic school where a six-month course of study to learn how to be a rifle platoon commander and I set out to be an infantry officer, like Major Love. Found out during our three-day war and at the end of November, first part of December, when it was snow on the ground and ice and freezing, that I really did not like crawling around in the mud. I needed an alternative quickly.
My wife had always said, why don’t we go to Pensacola since you made this stupid decision? I resisted, but finally, after the three-day war I walked into my company officer and I said, “Hey, I’m going to accept my aviation option and I’m going to go to Pensacola.” The first time I got in an airplane and lifted off a T-34, I could not believe it. I was mesmerized just by the feeling of not being on the ground anymore, and the freedom of flying, and I fell in love with it. Almost immediately, before I even got my wings, one of my primary flight instructors in Kingsville, Texas was another Marine, a Marine major by the name of Pete Field, who was a test pilot.
That’s all we talked about when we flew, was the challenge of being a test pilot, how demanding it was, how precise you had to fly, and that was right up my alley. So, I decided before I got my wings that I was going to be a test pilot, and I applied for the first six or seven years of my aviation career. Finally, after getting a master’s degree from Southern Cal, while I was a recruiter out there, the Marine Corps nominated me and sent me to Patuxent River to go to test pilot school. So, that’s how I got to be a Marine aviator.
ACME General: We’re going to skim through the next couple of decades because I want to talk about your time as the administrator, but I just got to reflect that I well remember the first time I strapped on a T-34 as well. I guess we’re flying the same trainers. They keep them around a while, don’t they?
CB: Yeah, they’re new now.
ACME General: They’ve upgraded now.
CB: Thank goodness. I think they fly the T-6 and then moved to the T-45 Goshawk.
ACME General: That’s right. The initial, the primary trainer is the T-6, but who knows? I flew enough flights that we might have sat in the same T-34 cockpit.
CB: We might have crossed paths. That’s true. Very true.
ACME General: We might have. So, you find yourself at Pax River, you get on the test pilot track and you end up commanding two shuttle missions and serving on two others. All, I am sure, special and memorable in their own way. It’s probably hard to pick a favorite mission, but was there anything in particular during that time that surprised you, that stood out, that made you think, “Damn, I’m lucky.”
CB: Oh, there was no question. What stuck out for me, because I was not a person who wanted to become an astronaut, we skipped over that part. But I was very happy as a test pilot. Although the expectation was when I went to Pax River, that was the end of my Marine Corps career because not very many people came back from being a test pilot and got back into the operating forces. But I decided that I was going to spend my time as a test pilot and then go back to grad school. Get a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering and maybe spend, pay back my time to the Marine Corps and then go get a job and become an engineer and make money. Over the course of that plan, NASA selected this first group of space shuttle astronauts, and in them were three blacks. Ron McNair, Fred Gregory, and Guy Bluford.
Ron was the only civilian and he, like me, was from South Carolina, had grown up in the segregated south as a kid in a little bitty place called Lake City, South Carolina, about 42 miles from where I grew up. He asked me if I was going to apply for the space program, I said, “Not on your life.” He asked me why not, and I said, “Ron, they’d never pick me.” Then, he looked at me and he said, “That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard.” He said, “How do you know if you don’t ask?”
He embarrassed me more than anything else because my mom and dad, as teachers, had always taught me I could do anything I wanted to do if I was willing to study and work, and never ever, ever be afraid of failure or let anybody define me or tell me what I couldn’t do. So, I did, I picked a pen and paper, applied and I got selected in the second group of space shuttle astronauts. So, the big surprise was that I was in fact qualified to become an astronaut and that happened because Ron McNair embarrassed me. Once I got into the space program, the surprise was how overwhelming the training was. After being assigned to my first flight, actually, we were about six months out and I wasn’t sure I was going to make it.
I remember going to my commander, Hoot Gibson, a Navy pilot, good friend. I said, “Hoot, I don’t know whether I’m going to learn all this stuff. This is overwhelming.” He patted me on the shoulder. He said, “Hey, all of us have been there. Just hang in there. Keep working on it. It’ll come to you.” He was absolutely right. About a few days later it was like a light bulb going off and things started to click. Our training for the last six months went really, really well, and I enjoyed four missions after that. You’re absolutely right. I don’t have a favorite mission, but I have a mission that brings me my most cherished moments and memories. That’s my last flight, 1994 with a Russian Cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev. It was the first joint Russian-American mission. It is so special to me because it’s a mission I did not want to accept.
When I was asked to go back to Houston from NASA headquarters, where I was working as the assistant deputy administrator, I asked them what the mission was, hoping that it would be the first Hubble servicing mission. They said, “Nope, that’s already gone. We want you to command the first joint Russian-American shuttle mission.” I said, “Okay, stop. I don’t have any interest in flying with any damn Russian. I’ve trained all my life to kill them and they’ve trained all their lives to kill me. I don’t want to fly with a Russian.” My boss told me to calm down and said that there were two cosmonauts in town who we’re going to have dinner with a mutual friend, mutual friends of ours that night, and he wanted me to go have dinner with them.
I said, “Okay, I’ll go, but I’m not flying with them.” We met Sergei Krikalev, he was a fluent English speaker, young engineer, who at the time I think had the most time in space of anyone on the planet, had actually been on Mir, the Mir space station. When the Soviet Union fell apart, the wall came down. I coincidentally had actually talked to him in a three-way interview with ABC radio and TV when I flew my third flight in 1992. He was on Mir stuck and I was orbiting earth on the American Atlanta Space Shuttle. We talked together about the potential to work in space collaboratively, like it had been done during the Apollo–Soyuz mission. Neither of us, I think, ever imagining that that would really happen. Here I was with him for dinner, along with his counterpart, Vladimir Titov, who was a Russian, he was a Russian air force pilot MiG-21.
But he had flown the longest single mission of 366 days at that time. It was later eclipsed by another Russian, but Vladimir spoke zero English. So, Sergei acted as interpreter. The two of us, three of us trained together for the next year when I decided I would go back and take the mission. Sergei ended up being on our crew that flew in the spring of 1994. We became lifelong friends and are friends to this day. He runs the human space flight program for Roscosmos. That friendship is what has helped, that and many other friendships is what has helped keep the Soviet, formerly Soviet, now Russian space program Roscosmos and the United States NASA working collaboratively, as we have done for the last 21 years, 21 plus years on the International Space Station without one second of not having at least one Russian or American together on the International Space Station.
ACME General: It’s amazing to me that it’s that personal connection that has turned out to be the thing that has kept this partnership going. It’s not some treaty or some bureaucratic mechanism. It’s friendship.
CB: It’s the personal connection that makes everything go. I don’t care what technology you’re talking about, even autonomous systems at some point human beings become involved to make them work. When there is a friendship and a spirit of trust, things go well. The reason, if I may, the reason we’re in such trouble in our country today is because the people who are responsible for making policy and leading the country don’t know each other. The members of Congress don’t even speak to each other anymore. I’m not that old, but I do remember when a big feature of being in Congress was the fact that you got to know your colleagues. You brought your families to DC and you fought and argued during the daytime on the floor of the House and Senate.
Then, at night you all went over and had a beer in a local bar or you went to somebody else’s house and had dinner and you’re families and friends for life. That doesn’t happen anymore on purpose. People don’t want to know each other and don’t want to work collaboratively. That’s why we’re in trouble.
ACME General: I think you’re right. I’ve heard that the only place left in Washington where real work gets done is the house gym, because they’re forced to interact. They’re forced to talk to each other.
CB: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah.
ACME General: So, you become a transformational leader at NASA, when you become administrator in 2009, but can you describe for us the environment at that time? What is going on in our politics, in the American public’s attitude towards NASA? What are you dealing with when you come in?
CB: The first thing I was dealing with was not belonging. I had no clue about Washington, D.C. I did not know President Obama. I had met him once before he decided he was going to nominate me. They asked me to come up to the White House to meet with him one day. I was supposed to meet with him one afternoon and we waited and waited and waited. That meeting never occurred because he was having a meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel that did not go well. It went well into the evening and they asked me if I could stay over and see him the next morning, I did. We talked about 25 minutes and he did most of the talking. Talked about his passion for space and technology and his desire to really promote STEM education and to get young American kids inspired again to do things like explore space. Go back to the moon and onto Mars.
Never asked me anything about being the NASA administrator, did ask me some of my opinions about how NASA operated and things we were doing and that was it. He decided later, several months later, that he was going to nominate me to be the NASA administrator. So, I came to town, went through the confirmation process and had what I tell people was the last civil confirmation in the Obama administration. This was July of 2009. After that all hell broke loose and it became almost impossible for President Obama to get any kind of confirmation through without extreme difficulty.
So, it seemed like almost immediately, and for sure, the next year after the election of 2010, when the … I forget what they call themselves, but the group of resistant Republicans came in and decided that the one thing they were going to do was keep the president from being successful. So, that was very difficult for us to get things that we thought were good for the country through the Congress. Almost nothing got done the first two years because of the focus on the Affordable Healthcare plan. I almost got fired for talking about working with China and going to Mars. I traveled to China and the Middle East at the behest of the president because he wanted us to expand the number of nontraditional partners that NASA had to get science and technology and collaboration out among the world. That did not sit well with folk like Fox News.
So, they saw both of those trips as ways to get at the president to demand that I’d be fired for my collaboration with the Chinese and for a statement I made about wanting to help young Muslim kids in the Middle East, understand their heritage and feel good about their heritage and their background. So, Fox came after me as a way of going after President Obama, demanded that he either fire me or resign, which I thought, I had never seen anything like that. All of a sudden I was immersed in the middle of stuff I did not know how to handle. What saved me was bringing in a veteran of the Hill. A guy named David Weaver is my Director of Communications at NASA, and a young man by the name of Mike French, who came in initially from the Obama administration.
He eventually became my Chief of Staff. So, between David and Mike French and the second term getting a deputy in by the name of Dava Newman from MIT life became really, really good for me.
We did a lot of things. We laid out a plan and worked collaboratively with the other agencies and departments in the government and built international partnerships that continued to this day. We had, in excess, of 800 international agreements, everything from STEM education to human space flight with more than 120 nations. I think I visited 52 of those nations in the two terms as the NASA administrator.
ACME General: I think it’s safe to say the rocky beginnings of that tenure didn’t last, and you achieved some pretty transformative policy shifts reshaping a bureaucratic behemoth into something much more nimble. A key to that was your push to leverage the ingenuity and the industry of the private sector. Was that a top down thing? Was it your vision or just a necessity?
CB: Oh, no, no, no. It was not my vision at all. It was very top down. It was something that was really near and dear to President Obama. Of the many things in my first two years that almost got me fired, it was my reticence, my slow onboarding as a believer in commercial space flight. I think the reason I was so hesitant was because the commercial ideologues, and I use that term, they were people who believed that NASA should really go away. That the Obama administration should take the bulk of the money that they were sending to NASA for deep space exploration and things like the shuttle and the space station and all that, give it to the private sector, and they would do things much quicker and much more efficiently, and for less cost than NASA could ever do.
I didn’t believe that, and I still don’t believe it, but over time by working with organizations like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, getting to know people like Elon Musk, but more importantly, like Gwynne Shotwell, the Chief Operating Officer and President of SpaceX and learning of their competence and capabilities and having them understand that NASA was not the big, bad boogieman, that we too could … They could work with us and we could collaborate and we could reach agreements on ways to modify the rules and regulations and specifications and things like human rating standards. So, we took a couple of years to put NASA together with the private sector and come up with revised standards and regulations for flying, not just space flight, but for aeronautics and science and everything.
We came up with a group of revised standards that I think to this day are pretty good because they considered everybody’s input. We found that we had some rules that we were trying to comply with that were from the Apollo era, and they applied to systems that no longer existed. So, there, it benefited us to take on some of the commercial rules and regulations that were available. It worked very well with the FAA when it came to aeronautics and the likes. So, I give credit to the people around me. My mantra every time I came into any place was I am not the smartest person in the room. I knew that, but I prided myself in surrounding myself with very talented, smart people to whom I could turn and to whom I could delegate authority to make decisions at the lowest level and then provide top cover for them to keep people like Congress and people in the White House from harassing them or beating them down, as frequently people will want to do.
ACME General: Do you think we have now struck the right balance between that private and public investment?
CB: I think NASA has. In fact, NASA may have gone overboard a little bit, but I think where we are today is right where you want to be. The Department of Defense has come along very well. They were like me. They were very hesitant initially, particularly to adopt the practice that NASA had of purchasing a service from a commercial provider. In 2011, we retired the space shuttle, and that meant we had no way, no organic American way to get human beings to space except to rely on the Russians and their Soyuz launch vehicles until SpaceX and American companies could deliver on their promise to give us a launch capability. As I suspected, unless the government gave them money, they didn’t have the capability of bringing that capability into being for quite some time.
So, we retired the shuttle in 2011. We did not get full funding for commercial crew from Congress until 2015. So, we were four years behind before we even got full funding to have American industry start building commercial crew vehicles, but they did as well as they could do. So, now we have SpaceX. Boeing is about to go and do their second set of tests, and they will have a capability of taking crews to orbit. Then, there’s another company called Sierra Nevada that has a contract now with NASA to carry cargo. But my guess is they won’t be far behind in demonstrating their commercial crew capability also. So, I think we struck a balance, the Air Force, the space force, all military and civilian government organizations now follow our model of purchasing a service instead of trying to own vehicles and the like.
ACME General: Is there more that can be done for the smaller non-traditionals? It’s pretty clear that SpaceX and the larger ones are established. They can innovate, they can take some of those risks by themselves, but it seems like the government still needs to provide a leg up to some of the smaller ones who would love to get into this business, but don’t have the capital.
CB: Let me say something that will probably twerk some of your audience off, because people who fought us in trying to maintain the capability of getting humans to space, who fought us in going with Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their subcontractors in building a national system called the Space Launch System and Orion, their charge was always that we were just a jobs organization and these were just jobs programs. My response to that would be, you’re damn right. The American economy is driven on people working and making money. The government has a responsibility to facilitate those jobs being available. Some of them, many of them, should and do come from the private sector, but there is no way in the world that all of those jobs are going to come from the private sector.
That’s where the government steps in. When people ask me about the responsibility of the government versus the private sector, government should take the risk in terms of financing and putting human beings at risk, if you will, for grand things, like going back to the moon and going onto Mars. There should be no private company that the nation depends on to get that kind of work done. NASA and other government agencies should demonstrate the capability to do that in collaboration with the private sector. Then, as we have done for low earth orbit operations, once the private sector demonstrates that they have the wherewithal to do it, turn it over to them. We don’t do space transportation anymore. NASA does not carry things and people to orbit. We go to the private sector. We contract for a service. The private sector prepares the vehicles, maintains the vehicles, launches them and recovers them.
They hand them to us once they safely get them into space. We take it and go do what we need to do with it, getting people and things to the International Space Station. Then, we turn it over to them when we’re done, and they actually de-orbit it, in the case of SpaceX, and bring it back to earth and give us our astronauts back or our experiments back. They take their vehicle and go prepare it to go fly again. In the case of SpaceX, they have flown Falcon 9 launch vehicles for the government and the private sector interchangeably. The payload doesn’t care what vehicle it’s on as long as it gets it the right speed and in the right orbit.
ACME General: It sounds to me like you’re primarily making an economic argument around this balance between the government actor and the private actor. I’m wondering how much you have thought about the moral element of that equation. I go back to the space race, and the idea that back then it was a contest between two societies. I know there wasn’t universal support for say the Apollo program. We often white washed that.
CB: Yeah. Not in a long shot.
ACME General: But it was still an expression of the public will. But what we’re seeing now with what I think can be fairly termed as a space gold rush, isn’t always an expression of the public will. Private actors are so influential. Do you think about the moral element of this privatized approach, especially when it comes to pushing frontiers? Not like putting stuff into low earth orbit, but pushing the frontiers and the missions to Mars and the moon.
CB: Yeah, I think about it all the time and you’re absolutely right, I think the dominant benefit of the public private partnership is economic. It allows the government to decrease the amount of money they spend on infrastructure and operations, day to day operations. It cost me $2 billion to maintain the space shuttle program, whether we flew once or whether we flew 20 times. That was a basic cost of infrastructure. Just keeping people employed that could run that infrastructure and conduct the launch and landings and everything else, we don’t pay that kind of money anymore because we pay a set price for X number of missions. Then, we take what is left and use it for exploration or science or looking after the environment and things like that.
The challenge with where we are today with billionaires becoming interested and involved in the space race is that some of them are doing it purely for economic reasons, because they think that there is gold to be made out there. Others, and I will pick on Jeff Bezos and the three big guys, Jeff Bezos, and Sir Richard Branson, and also Elon, they do have altruistic motives for doing what they want to do. Elon believes that earth is destined to go away as a suitable place to live, and so he wants, he believes that we need to be a multi-planet species. He thinks that if we can move humanity to Mars and let that be our new home everything will be fine. I vehemently disagree with him because we have one planet in our solar system that can sustain life the way that we know it and love it, and that’s this planet on which we live.
So, the moral obligation we have is to take care of it and clean it up. There is no planet B. I don’t think people really want to, they haven’t thought about it yet, but I don’t think people really want to walk around on Mars where they have to be in a space suit anytime they go out. I like to go out even when it’s really cold like this, I’ll go out, I’ll put a jacket on, put over what I have on because I want to go out and I want to smell fresh air. I want cold air to go into my lungs and stuff like that. You do that on Mars and you’re dead, you take your helmet off, because Mars has a dominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere. It’s got an atmosphere, but it doesn’t have an atmosphere that’s friendly to humans. So, in the next millennia, thousand years or plus, human beings will not be able to go walk around on Mars the way we do here on earth.
That’s what we want to do. So, that’s where the obligation, the moral imperative comes in, to get off our butt and clean up our planet. Jeff Bezos has that moral imperative in mind. His big thing is taking heavy industry, polluting industry and the like, and moving it off the planet to either earth orbit or to the moon surface or other places where there is no humanity. There may or may not be life, but not a life form that we know and put those hazardous operations somewhere where they don’t impact planet A, our home. I highly support that. Then, I think Sir Richard Branson is somewhere in between. He’s chosen to do his bidding just in low earth orbit, not in low earth orbit, but in what we call sub-orbital spaceflight. So, space tourism, taking people into space so they can see the planet from that vantage point and maybe come back and have this awareness of the critical importance of our curing for the planet when you see it from that perspective.
But those are the big guys, but they can’t do it without the little guys. So, I think it’s critically important that we constantly open up the aperture so that we give opportunities for women owned, veteran owned, minority owned, small businesses who otherwise would not be able to join the family of space faring entities where it not for some large entity reaching out and bringing them in as a sub or putting them in what NASA calls a mentor protege program, where we teach them how to deal with government and how to win government contracts. We do a lot of that with minority serving institutions like HBCUs and colleges and universities that serve the native American population, the Asia-Pacific population. That’s our moral imperative, is to bring them in back by mentoring them and teaching them, and making them proteges until they have the capability to do it for themselves.
ACME General: Are there new authorities that are required to achieve that at scale? Does NASA have the tools it needs to do what you’re talking about and bringing in these innovators who haven’t been part of the ecosystem before and recognizing their talent and their ability to contribute and giving them that leg up?
CB: I think NASA has the tools it needs, but it’s not NASA’s responsibility. Governmentally, the regulating organizations are the FAA and the Department of Commerce. It’s actually the Department of Commerce who has the responsibility to do all that I just talked about. They are the people who should be the stewards of commercial space. So, they should have all kinds of programs, mentor protege programs, the things that I just mentioned that NASA does, they should be working, and they probably are, to be quite honest. The National Space Council today has the oversight responsibility under the direction of the vice president and her executive director of pulling federal agencies and the private sector together to help advance space commerce and other things to keep the US ahead of everybody else in the world.
But the Department of Commerce is the lead agency in terms of opening the vistas and making it possible for small and disadvantaged businesses to get into the space business.
ACME General: Do you think Americans appreciate enough how focused NASA is on life on earth?
CB: No. You alluded to it when you talked about the myth of the Apollo era. I grew up in the Apollo era and while I was not an Apollo astronaut, I’m too young, but I was in flight school during the Apollo era, high school and flight school. I can remember, and I think you know when we launched Apollo 11 to the moon, Hosea Williams and members of the Poor People’s March went down to the Kennedy Space Center and demonstrated. Pleaded, met with the NASA administrator outside the launch site and pleaded with him to cancel the mission and take the money and put it into the Poor People’s Program. At which time the NASA administrator quite appropriately told them, if he could he’d more than happily do it, but he didn’t think … One, he couldn’t, and the other thing was he did not think that was the way to go.
One of the reasons that we are going to space is to explore and do research and development that makes life better here on earth. So, while I was the NASA administrator, we reviewed our vision, mission, and values. Our vision became to take everything that we do and learn and make it, use that to make it possible for us to make life better for all humanity here on the planet. NASA still believes that. We talk about doing things off earth for earth, so on the International Space Station today and for the last 21 plus years, the experimentation that we’ve been doing and the research we’ve been doing, granted it helps astronauts to get to Mars, but if it doesn’t help improve the life of humanity back here on the planet, we don’t do it.
We can’t justify spending the money just to make it easy for an astronaut to go to Mars. So, biomedical research, working with RNA and DNA, some of the mRNA vaccines that now are protecting us from COVID, that research has been going on on the International Space Station for much of its 20 plus years. So, I chuckle when people say that we developed the COVID-19 vaccines too quickly. Man, 20 years is not quick. The research on that has been going on in space for 20 plus years. So, those vaccines are the product of multi-years and multi-decades of research. It’s doing experiments like protein crystal growth, where we … because gravity is taken out of the equation when you’re working in low earth orbit and you get … human proteins get in their natural form.
So, you can grow big protein crystals that you then can bring back to earth and slice and dice and put in electron microscopes, figure out what they look like and the bad ones that cause disease, you can make things that’ll glam onto them like the RNA vaccine does to the Omicron virus protein and kill it, or negate it, or whatever you want to do. So, that type of research has been going on in space since the early days of Apollo, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, right onto the International Space Station days. Today, it is international collaboration. We have about 16 nations who have had someone fly on the International Space Station to date. There are 20 some odd nations who collaborate to do the work that’s done on the International Space Station.
ACME General: Do you have a similar rationale to defend the massive expenditures that are going to be required to send humans to Mars? Because I don’t think your rationale is we need a backup planet.
CB: Oh, no, not at all. We do not need a backup plan. The backup plan idea sucks. Elon will probably just send me a bad note. I don’t buy that. The rationale for sending humans to Mars is that we are able to take the 50 years of data that we have collected robotically from orbiting spacecraft, from landers and from rovers and put it to the test. We now think, not Curiosity, but the second rover, and I can’t believe I’m faltering at its name, but the combination of the Ingenuity helicopter and its rover have discovered that there is carbon that we can relate to human life, to life itself in the soil of Mars. Man, if that’s true and we can verify that by having humans go and actually do in situ tests on Mars, maybe bring something back, that’s a whole new ballgame, to find out that as we suspect life as we know it began billions and billions of years ago with the Big Bang.
So, there was no life on this planet because this planet didn’t exist at the time of the Big Bang. This planet came about when some of the molten stuff that was thrown out at the time of the Big Bang began to cool down. In our case, it cooled down into this nice little ball that is now the only planet that we know of in our solar system that can sustain life. So, we need to be able to get to Mars and put humans there to put all of these things to the test that the robotic systems are telling us exist.
ACME General: I want to pivot to US space command. I can’t imagine a better person to put these questions to because you spent the first half of your career in a profession of arms. The second half in a profession of exploration and peace. Do you worry about the militarization of space?
CB: Yes, I do. But I am somewhat comforted by the leadership today. If you look at John Raymond, who won’t be there very long, who is the Commander of US Space Force today, he’s a warrior. He understands the cost of war, and like you and me, when we were active duty Marines, I’m not sure about you, I think I know you but I prayed every day that I didn’t have to go practice what I had practiced. I was taught both at the Naval Academy and going through the basic school that, we’re going to make you the best warrior on the planet, but keep in mind if you ever have to exercise what we’re teaching you here, we have failed, humanity has failed. Diplomacy has broken down our ability to sit and talk, and reason with people has broken down and we’re going to have to apply force to bring order so that we can get back to a negotiating table or something.
We’re only going to apply the appropriate amount of force that it takes to accomplish that. Once that’s done, I’m going to tell you to stand down and stand by and we’re going to … we’ll let the diplomats take over again. What’s happening right now, if you look at Ukraine, is that we’re trying our absolute best to give diplomacy an opportunity to work, but you can’t just sit back and say, “Okay, if it breaks down we’ll go think of what we want to do.” You have to put the right things in place, whether it be defensive weapons that we’re giving to Ukraine and offensive capability of the NATO nations if things really get that bad, but we have to be ready to exercise the military capability that we have.
The fact that as much as we try to train people and as much as we try to instill in our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, guardians, and coast guardsmen that we do have a moral responsibility to treat people equitably and humanely, there is always going to be some group of people who just won’t think right. They’ll go out and they’ll commit atrocities and the like. So, those are all the kinds of things that we have to think about. Atrocities in space are really bad because they are potentially life ending atrocities. When we go into kinetic war in space, if I shoot an artillery round or drop a bomb on a building, I destroy the building and a couple things around it and we come back in and repair it the next day. I shoot a kinetic weapon in space, and I’m going to take out that orbit and any orbit beneath it for some decades to come.
You only need to look at the Chinese satellite that had a near miss with debris from a Russian anti-satellite test several months ago. That’s going to be there for years. So, that’s why I worry about the militarization of space, that you will have less than reasonable people decide that, “Okay, we’ve got this capability, damn, let’s use it.”
ACME General: What are your biggest concerns looking ahead five, 20, and a hundred years? I got to imagine that-
CB: Well, my biggest concern is looking forward one year, and I’m not saying that trivially. I am saying we will probably determine in the next year the answer to the question that the lady asked Benjamin Franklin coming out of the continental Congress, the Constitutional Convention, “Do we have a republic, Mr. Franklin?” He said, “Yes, if we can keep it.” I don’t say this trivially, we are perilously on the cusp of answering that question. If the answer is, no, we do not want to be a republic, we want to quit following the idea of our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence, and we really don’t care about equality, justice for all, and the like, then we will step back and cross that precipice for decades to come.
Some people will say, boy, you’re really exaggerating. We are in a new post reconstruction period. We’ll have to decide whether we want to correct it the way we did in the ’60s, when we came up with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, or whether we say, nah, we’re not going to do that. We like the way we’re going right now. We like this turmoil and hatred and all this other kind of stuff. All the way to minority of the population, they’ll take care of us. The minority of the population will not take care of us. That’s not the way the democracy works.
ACME General: No, it’s not.
CB: So, let’s get through the next year or two and then I’ll tell you what I … I’m an optimist. I am the eternal optimist. My former priest, who’s now, she’s in Indiana being a priest in a conservative community trying to figure out how to survive, but when I talk to her and I tell her, “My stomach churns every time I’m asked to talk about something because I’m really afraid. I’m the eternal optimist and I try to remain that way.” She said, “Well, some people say the eternal optimist is a person of faith.” I do claim to be a person of faith. So, as Justice Breyer said he is the eternal optimist. But he too talked about his concern for the future of our nation as the shining city on the hill and the beacon of democracy. That is not a given. We don’t have to be that. We chose that. When our forefathers left England and came over here, that’s what they said they were doing. They wanted a place, freedom, justice, equality for all. Then, they had second thoughts and put in the three-fifths clause in the Constitution and kept women from voting, but over time they got wiser.
ACME General: One of my favorite observations about all of that is that, and I’m not sure who I’m quoting, I got to look it up. But the quote is, “Democracy is not a birthright, it’s a task.”
CB: I have to work at it every single day. I was in a building here in Washington, DC called the US Institute for Peace. It’s right across the street from the State Department. It’s a beautiful edifice that sits right, almost on the … it’s on the Constitution, I think, but right across the street from the headquarters of the State Department. So, I went along for years thinking it was a part of the State Department, but I was there for the first time yesterday. As I walked in, there was a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt and it talked about peace. The final portion of a three segment statement that she made was, peace is something that we have to work at forever, essentially. I’m paraphrasing what she said. Democracy is not a given and democracy is something that we have to work at forever.
It’s like diversity, equity, inclusion, organizations say that that’s a tenet of theirs and that it’s part of their core values. They get to the point, as the nation did with President Obama as the president, we figured, okay, it’s done. We are there. We have finally found this more perfect union, and all we did was pissed a lot of people off with a black president. We restarted, kind of re-stoked the flames of the Civil War, and we’re still stoking.
ACME General: Well, I want to end on a high note. So, I’m going to ask you about your reflections on leadership. I’m going to read back something you said and get your reaction to it, because I love it. To me, it captures the essence of real leadership. Talking about your time as administrator you said, “Simply put, the administrator’s job is to provide top cover for the 18,000 plus employees in the agency and let them do their work.” Thoughts on leadership?
CB: Amen. Whoever said that, that was awesome.
ACME General: You said that.
CB: Yeah, I did. I probably got it from my dad, to be quite honest, my football coach in high school, or from Major Love. There are people all along in my life who gave me little snippets of leadership. My mom and dad were the first. I tell people, when it comes to ethics, leadership, things like that, I didn’t have to go to the Naval Academy, but I did because it reinforced what my mom and dad taught me at the dinner table. They taught me that right will win out, that equality for all is really important, treat others the way you want to be treated. Take care of your people is a mantra of mine and that’s what I tell Marines all the time. Don’t worry about yourself, take care of your people and they will take care of you.
That’s why I felt my job as the NASA administrator was to facilitate the success of our employees in their brilliance and passing it on and carrying out what President Obama said, he wanted to expand to non-traditional partners, facilitating their success also. But to give people the top cover so they can do their jobs that they know how to do very, very well. That to me is good leadership.
ACME General: Charlie, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been an honor having you.
CB: Good to be with you again. Hopefully, we can get together again like this.
ACME General: Let’s do it.
CB: Thanks for doing this.
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