Space pioneer’s tears for Africa

15 November 2018 | Story Susan Segar. Photo Michael Hammond Read time 10 min.
Major General Charles Bolden, the US Science Envoy for Space, regales the audience with anecdotes about NASA and other aspects of his career.
Major General Charles Bolden, the US Science Envoy for Space, regales the audience with anecdotes about NASA and other aspects of his career.

As one of the world’s pioneers of space exploration, Major General Charles Bolden was fully prepared on a technical level for virtually any eventuality when he first travelled in the Space Shuttle Columbia in the 1980s.

What took him by surprise were the emotions he felt viewing the world from the vast distance of the shuttle – especially when he saw Africa, the continent of his ancestors.

“The first time I cried in space, I cried a lot,” the charismatic Bolden told a large audience during a public lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on 13 November.

Bolden, who is the United States (US) Science Envoy for Space, was hosted by the US Mission to South Africa. During his visit, he met high school and university students, as well as faculty, aerospace professionals and the general public, with the aim of promoting space exploration and highlighting the wide range of possibilities offered through the study of science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics.

A graduate of the United States Naval Academy who was a marine aviator and test pilot before becoming a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronaut, Bolden also served as a US Marine Corps major general. He was the first African American to serve as administrator of NASA, from 2009 to 2017.

Through the Science Envoy Program, eminent American scientists and engineers make use of their expertise and networks to interact and identify opportunities for ongoing international cooperation.

During his time at NASA, Bolden oversaw the safe transition from 30 years of space shuttle missions to a new era of exploration, with the focus on full utilisation of the International Space Station and space and aeronautics technology development.

Under him, the agency’s science activities included an unprecedented landing on Mars with the Curiosity rover, the launch of a spacecraft to Jupiter, and continued progress towards the 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Bolden’s space flights include piloting Space Shuttle Columbia in January 1986, and Space Shuttle Discovery in 1990, from which the Hubble Space Telescope was deployed. He also commanded a crew aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis in 1992, as well as Discovery in 1994 for the first joint US–Russian space shuttle mission.

Moved to tears

In an address titled “The Sky Is Not the Limit”, Bolden described how, having grown up as an African American in segregated South Carolina in the US, he was moved to tears when he looked down on the African continent from the shuttle.

“We were technically trained for two years. We were trained for disasters. During our simulations we were exposed to everything conceivable that could go wrong in the space shuttle, so we were well prepared. What we never spoke about was emotions … Growing up in South Carolina was not quite like growing up in apartheid, but you couldn’t tell me that.

“I grew up knowing that my ancestors were from somewhere in Africa. I had studied atlases and memorised all the countries that were candidates for where my ancestors might have come from,” he revealed.


“There were no borders. I just saw this incredible continent, from the Mediterranean, down to the Cape of Good Hope.”

So when he finally looked out of the window, “man, it was absolutely incredible”.

“I saw this big thing coming up that looked like an island. It was Africa. Then I had this startling realisation. There were no borders. I just saw this incredible continent, from the Mediterranean down to the Cape of Good Hope.

“It was breathtaking, but there were no borders or boundaries. I didn’t know which was South Africa or Morocco, and the most important thing was that it didn’t matter.”

When it became dark half an hour later, Bolden recalled, he suddenly saw “all these lights”.

“Most of them were stars … but when you look down to the ground you get to see poverty and wealth. There are lit-up areas where the money is, and where there is dark, generally there is a lot of poverty.

“When you’re up there, looking down, you start thinking about a lot of things you didn’t think about when you were doing all this technical preparation. You think, ‘I am a human being from that planet. Why don’t we live like it looks right now – with no borders and no boundaries?’. So, instantly, my perspective on the planet changed.”

Mars is not an option

He said he had always been “sort of” an environmentalist, “but when you look back and see this thin blue line [the atmosphere which has the oxygen to sustain life] … it becomes more urgent”.

“The point is, we always hear about the Earth being fragile. It’s not. It is resilient and it’s been around for billions of years. It just keeps changing and evolving. The fragile thing is us. So we had better take care of this planet, because as much as I want to go to Mars, I don’t want to live there.

“If we think we can go to Mars when the Earth is no longer sustainable, guess what – nor is Mars,” Bolden warned.

He regaled the audience with anecdotes about NASA and other aspects of his career, and answered questions ranging from “Are we alone?” to “When did the first galaxies come about after the Big Bang?” and “Is there life out there in the universe?”.

Another question was: “Will Elon Musk get to Mars by 2024?”

Bolden doesn’t think so.

“Mars is really really hard. We are still several years away from having a dependable human launch system from commercial entities. It will happen, but not overnight,” he predicted.


“Mars is really really hard. We are still several years away from having a dependable human launch system from commercial entities.”

Marvelling at the “billions and billions of stars and galaxies that exist”, he explained that it is now known, thanks to preliminary evidence, that there are more planets than stars.

“When I was your age,” he quipped to a young potential astronaut, “we only studied nine planets. That was it.”

Bolden told the audience that one of the fastest growing areas of expertise currently is space law. He also spoke about the Global Exploration Roadmap, a long-range international exploration strategy signed by a number of countries.

A further aim of his visit to South Africa, said Bolden, who is also chief executive officer of the Bolden Consulting Group, was to “remind people of the importance of collaboration with the US on science, engineering, maths and technology”.

“When I meet with national leaders and leaders in industry and business, my aim is to encourage them to find ways to get involved with the US on a commercial basis in the science and technology fields. I use the fact of space and what NASA does today with their public–private partnerships as an example of what can be done when private industry and academia get together with government.”

South African potential

Pointing to the potential for South Africa in the field, Bolden explained that modern-day NASA no longer builds or operates a space shuttle or space transportation vehicle, rather “buying” the service from private-sector companies.

“South Africa could do that too. It is cheaper than owning and operating the vehicle, for one thing. When the government owns and operates the vehicle they are stuck with the maintenance and operations costs,” he said, adding that just to maintain the shuttle, whether or not they flew it, cost $2 billion dollars a year.

Africa has similar potential to the US in the space field, Bolden believes.

“You are already heavily involved in the space community. You can work collaboratively with African industry to let industry do a lot of the things needed. It took us a long time to learn that.”

Asked about his favourite space movie, Bolden named Hidden Figures, the 2016 biographical drama that tells the story of a group of poorly-recognised black women mathematicians who worked at NASA during the space race.

“It is not my favourite movie because it is about black women – because it is not about black women. It’s about humanity. It’s about us and about our willingness to be persistent and demand things. Women, black, people who are not in positions of privilege stepping forward and saying, ‘I deserve this as much as anybody else’.”

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