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Black History Month: From Segregation To Space


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk about hits and misses from last night's Grammy Awards. We'll talk about who won big and who got left out. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to continue our series observing Black History Month. We've been highlighting the achievements of African-Americans on the cutting edge in the so-called STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and math. And we know a lot of kids grow up wanting to be astronauts, but today we hear from someone who made that dream come true for himself and helped others who aspire to reach for the stars.

Charles F. Bolden, Jr. leads NASA as the organization's administrator. He's the first African-American to hold that position on a permanent basis. He's also a retired astronaut who's been to space four times and also a retired Marine general, and he's made it part of his mission to get more American children of whatever backgrounds interested in STEM careers. And General Bolden is with us now.

Thank you so much for joining us once again.

CHARLES BOLDEN, JR.: Michel, I'm honored to be here. Thanks very much.

MARTIN: Could we start with some news that's on a lot of people's minds? It's...

JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: ...one of the things people have been talking about, is this asteroid, which is supposed to be the size of an office building.

JR.: Yes.

MARTIN: That it's coming close to earth on Friday, February 15th, and I know that NASA's been taking a look at this. I know that we're not doomed, but tell us what's so important about this.

JR.: We're not doomed and it is - it's a significant asteroid. It's coming about 17,000 miles, which is, in relative terms, that's relatively close, but in terms of endangering satellites, the International Space Station, anything like that, it should not even impact or run a risk with our communication satellites.

MARTIN: But why is it that we're not in any danger? I think some people would feel that if something is that big, it's in space and coming that close there has to be some risk there.

JR.: The biggest reason we're not in danger from this asteroid is because we can track it long enough to know that this orbit is not going to bring it anywhere close to earth where it would be impacting earth. So hundreds of years from now, I think this asteroid may come back around and it may be a different story then.

MARTIN: So tracking these critters is one of the things that you do, but can you talk a little bit more about what else NASA does? I mean, the last shuttle mission flew in 2011 and, at the time, some people worried that the end of that program meant a lost opportunity to get people interested in careers in space and all the related fields. Could you talk a little bit about what kinds of missions NASA is pursuing now that you think engages the public's imagination or that you hope will engage the public's imagination?

JR.: I would love to. And we were very proud when we brought the shuttle era - an incredible 30 year era - to an end in July of 2011 when Atlantis landed, but we are still engaged in robust human space flight. For the last - a little bit more than 12 years now, there has not been a second that an American has not been in space on the International Space Station as a crew member.

The thing I like to talk about is the big A in NASA because a lot of people don't even know it and that's aeronautics. NASA's aeronautics mission director - it is the smallest of the four. And by the way, the four directorates are science; aeronautics, what we call human exploration and operations, HEAL; and then a new directorate that's called the space technology mission directorate.

My favorite because I'm a pilot is aeronautics. We experiment and do research to make airplanes better, particularly quieter, faster, more fuel efficient. If people think about the Hubble space telescope, that's NASA. A lot of people today know about space weather, so we work very closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. We build the satellites or run the programs for satellites that NOAA and the National Weather Services uses for weather predictions and the National Weather Service.

MARTIN: Is there anything about NASA you don't love?

JR.: Yeah - no. I wake up in the morning ready to go to work and, when I go home at night, I feel like I've made the world better. And I think, if you talk to anybody who works at NASA, they'll hopefully tell you the same thing. It's an awesome place.

MARTIN: We are speaking with the administrator of NASA, Charles Bolden. We are talking with African-Americans in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM fields as part of our celebration of Black History Month. So did you always know that you wanted to do something like this? Did you always know that...

JR.: I didn't have a clue.

MARTIN: Yeah, really?

JR.: I did not have a clue. I grew up in the segregated South. I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. My mom and dad were school teachers, and all my life they had told me and my brother we could do anything we wanted to do as long as we were willing to study hard and work hard. But I never dreamed of flying an airplane. I never dreamed of going to space. I knew what astronauts were. On Saturdays, I'd go to the theater and I'd watch Buck Rogers and all that stuff. But I never dreamed that I would be one. And I tell people all the time, the shuttle program just completely changed the face of exploration for African-American - for everybody because until shuttle came around everybody looked alike, and shuttle changed all that.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that because I've had the privilege of interviewing a number of astronauts and one of the things that they all say is that going up into space brings you back changed, and one of the things that they've all said is that, you know, when you look at the earth from that vantage point, you realize how small our differences are. But then you still have to come back to earth. And I wanted to ask whether your race has played a role in your career.

JR.: I think race has played a huge role in my career because I've never had any doubt about who I was or what I was. I am a very proud African-American. You know, like I said, I grew up in Columbia, South Carolina. My mom and dad were very successful educators and I have always been very proud that I was able to overcome what some people would consider adversity, but I always considered them opportunities to excel. And so life has been good to me and I can't complain.

You know, as we sit here, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, 50th anniversary of Dr. King's march on Washington and just after the inauguration of the second time - a black president. That's great. Life is good.

MARTIN: It sounds like you're very emotional about this. What was it that brought that forward for you? Is it just thinking about where you came from? Is it thinking about where we are?

JR.: Oh, it's thinking about all of that, Michel. I think, you know, I stand - and I don't say this, you know, as just something that's being cute, but I stand on the shoulders of giants. Whether you look back to the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African-Americans to come into the Marine Corps in 1942 or the Tuskegee Airmen who came into the Army Air Corps about the same period of time or the Buffalo soldiers, who go way back, or even the Golden 13 in the Navy, who were the first blacks to be commissioned, you know, there are a lot of people who have done things that enable me to be here.

MARTIN: One of the obstacles you faced earlier in your career when you first aspired to join the astronaut program is, despite the fact that you had been to the Naval Academy and had flown, you know, however many combat missions - 100 combat missions - that you couldn't get a referral to the astronaut program. Is that true?

JR.: Oh, no, no, no. I think what you confuse that with is my getting into the Naval Academy. I...

MARTIN: Oh, Naval Academy. Right. From Columbia, South Carolina.

JR.: Yeah. It started a long, long time ago.

MARTIN: You have to have a - what's the word? A recommendation, right?

JR.: You have to have an appointment or be nominated by a member of Congress, the Vice President or the President, and most of the appointments come from congressional representatives and state senators and, at my time, it was pretty clear and it finally became very clear when I was refused by my representative and my senators that I was not going to get into the naval academy that way.

But the good thing for me was...

MARTIN: Strom Thurmond was your senator at that time.

JR.: Strom Thurmond was my senator - was one of my senators. I had Strom Thurmond and Olin D. Johnston and then Albert Watson was my congressional representative and...

MARTIN: But, despite your excellent grades and your excellent athletic contributions, you would not get any referral?

JR.: It was not - and, you know, I'll give them a break. OK. It was not politically feasible for them to do it at the time, and Strom - I will say Strom Thurmond at least had the courage to say that to me, that it was not politically something that he could do at that time. My mother went to her grave believing that Strom Thurmond played a role in my getting an - finally getting an appointment to the naval academy because I got an appointment from Congressman William Dawson in Chicago, Illinois. But that was after I wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon Johnson. My senior year in high school, the day that we traveled to Charleston, South Carolina on my football team to play for the state championship, President Kennedy was assassinated and it was a dark, dark day for everybody, but really dark - it was doubly dark for me because I was so set on going to the Naval Academy and I knew my only hope was Vice President Johnson and, when he became president, I knew I was not eligible for a presidential appointment, so I pulled out my pen and paper and I wrote to him and I said, hey, I know I'm not eligible for an appointment from you, but I need help.

And never heard from him, but about a week later, a navy recruiter showed up at my front door and said, I understand you want to go to the Naval Academy. I said, yes, I do.

MARTIN: So a couple of things that occur to me is, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, only about 3 percent of workers in the STEM fields are African-American, even now. I'm just wondering why you think that is.

JR.: Well, there are a number of reasons, and another former African-American astronaut and the guy who was in this job temporarily for a while is Fred Gregory and Fred was an Air Force Academy graduate and another shuttle pilot and Fred and I worked for years trying to recruit, you know, young black pilots to apply for the astronaut program, and that's really difficult. It's the same thing with trying to get people of color into the STEM fields. We get them excited. We get them onto college campuses and, in many cases, especially with young women, they get there and there frequently is no support structure and so we've got to keep working at it.

MARTIN: OK. I have to ask this, though, because I know that, if I'm asking it, somebody's thinking it. There are those who would say you didn't have any support. Some people would say, well, if you could do it, why do other people need more than you had?

JR.: Well, and I say that to young people myself. I tell them, look, if I could do it, there's no reason you can't do it. But we do know that, you know, I did have support when I went through the Naval Academy. I struggled, but I had a mother away from home, Miss Lily May Chase(ph), who lived right outside the gate and was a custodian in the Naval Academy library and she - every black midshipman who came through there - she brought us into her house on the weekends and gave us a place to get together and talk about what was going on. And although there are only four of us that graduated together, I tell you, we supported each other and - yeah - some few people can make it on their own, but the vast majority of people need some kind of support and that's we try to provide for them.

MARTIN: Why does it matter that there be more diversity in the STEM fields? Some would argue, you know, the United States is still a world leader in these areas. We may not be graduating as many people as we would like, but we are still the world leader in innovation, so why does it matter that there's more diversity?

JR.: Well, if we don't want to be the best in the world, it doesn't matter, but if we want to be the best in the world and we want to come up with all the best ideas, we've got to have a diverse workforce. You know, you can - and I think the research will show. You put a homogeneous group of people together, give them a problem and they'll come up with the same answer that's usually come out of that kind of group.

You put a diverse group of people together who don't even know each other, have totally different ideas about stuff, you're going to get some absolutely incredible answers there.

MARTIN: Well, we're almost out of time and I want to appreciate you again.

JR.: Oh, no.

MARTIN: Thank you again for speaking with us. Before we let you go, I wanted to ask. Do you have some wisdom that you'd like to pass on to somebody who is listening to our conversation now, maybe would like to follow in your footsteps?

JR.: Michel, I think I could give you a quote from Dr. King, who - you know, and I think he said, "almost always, the creative, dedicated minority has made the world better." So for any young person of color who's listening, just - you know, you should know that you will make a difference wherever you go if you're willing to study hard and work hard and not be afraid of failing.

MARTIN: Charles F. Bolden, Jr. is the administrator of NASA. He is a retired astronaut, a retired major general in the United States Marine Corps and he was kind enough to join us from their headquarters.

General Bolden, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JR.: Thank you so very much, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.