Transcript: Face to Face with Charles Bolden


Bill Plante: Welcome to "Face to Face." I'm Bill Plante and our guest today is NASA Administrator and former astronaut Charles Bolden. Welcome.

Charles Bolden: Good to be here Bill, thank you.

Bill Plante: You know yesterday we all watched here in Washington as the shuttle mounted on the 747 and did several fluff turns around the city. There were people out there gawking and thinking this is the last time we're ever going to see that ship in the air. What did you feel?

Charles Bolden: Well I wasn't here, believe it or not. I was actually in Colorado Springs but I was following it with great interest. I was very emotional even in Colorado Springs. I was speaking out there at the National Space symposium and having an opportunity to explain to people how this was the beginning of the new era for NASA. It's the beginning of our next era of exploration. Discovery played a key role in helping us construct the international space station, which is now our toe-hold on the universe for humans. And it was quite the historic vehicle, having flown 39 missions, many of them historic firsts. Two include my second flight which was when we put the Hubble space telescope in order...

Bill Plante: You were in the driver seat there, so --

Charles Bolden: I've had good times in Discovery.

Bill Plante: -- Yesterday must've been kind of emotional.

Charles Bolden: Every day with shuttle is emotional for me, but then again every day is emotional for me because I'm sort of a passionate person. I really believe about the future. That's what I'm about, that's what NASA's about. We love to tell people that we're about making the future, taking science fiction and turning it into science fact.

Bill Plante: Well you were talking about the future, and everybody I think wonders, when they think about NASA, if there's nothing to get us into space what is next?

Charles Bolden: Oh we're in space all the time. We've been onboard the international space station now for almost 12 years solid, without interruption, not a second has passed over the last almost 12 years that we've not had at least 1 American astronaut and at least 1 Russian cosmonaut working together on the international space station, usually with crew members from a couple of other nations. We've been in space, we use the Soyez to get us there right now. But we've got a company called SpaceX that's going to launch probably the 30th of this month, on a cargo demonstration, and then orbital scientists will follow in the summer. And we have a competition underway right now so we can determine which commercial company or private company is going to carry our own astronauts so we can bring that responsibility back here to American soil.

Bill Plante: Isn't it a little strange after the competition of the Cold War to find us depending on the Russians to get to the space station?

Charles Bolden: Not strange at all. You know, I can tell you that because when I was told, I was here at NASA headquarters when I was told back in 1992 that I had been selected to fly the first joint Russian-American mission, and I promptly told my boss at the time "forget it," I'm a marine I trained all my life to kill them, and them to kill me, and they told me to calm down there are two guys in town have dinner with them and then talk about it after that. And I learned, that was one of the most valued experiences in my life was to have an opportunity to work with them for a two-year period of time, help their families adjust to our culture and everything. And that's what we're all about. NASA is really involved in trying to expand America's cooperation with other nations around the world in the fields of science, engineering, and technology.

Bill Plante: But there are a lot of voices out there today that are concerned about America not having a manned space program.

Charles Bolden: We do have a manned space program, and I'm so glad that you're taking the time to have this conversation because Americans need to be very proud. One of the things I was hoping people would see yesterday when Discovery flew overhead, we're hoping that they'll see it in the other cities around the country where we're going to put orbiters, is that's a piece of our heritage. It left an incredible legacy, that legacy right now is the international space station. And the international space station is, like I said, is the toe-hold to the rest of the universe for us. Humans have always wanted to go into deep space. We have never, ever been into deep space. We've never been any farther than the moon, we're gonna go farther than the moon, we're gonna go beyond that. So we're going to fulfill the dreams of people who wrote science fiction books before the Wright brothers built the first airplane.

Bill Plante: Well in that vein, what do you think about Newt Gingrich's proposal of colonizing the moon...

Charles Bolden: I'm not going there. I stay away from politics and political statements and everything. We're about exploration. And we are going beyond the moon, it is not unlikely that humans will be back on the surface of the moon. It is unlikely that NASA will spend a lot of effort trying to--we don't colonize anywhere, but we will explore. Mars is one of our destinations, it's one that--it's a challenge that the President has laid out for us. It's also a place that most people who happen to be like you and me, the human species, think we ought to go. And we're going there. We want to find out whether there is other life in this universe and that seems like a logical place to start.

Bill Plante: Let me remind you that in 1981, Walter Cronkite had the Apollo 11 astronauts on "Face the Nation," and they told him that the U.S. would be on Mars -I mean, I'm sorry, it was in 1969, '69, and they told him the U.S. would be on Mars in 1981.

Charles Bolden: You know there are plans that people make. I always tell--I love to tell my kids this, we always make plans and then life happens. When I, I never dreamed of being an astronaut to be quite honest, growing up in Colombia, South Carolina, and I was, I was very fortunate to meet Dr. Ron --the late, great, Dr. Ron McNair, one of the first astronauts selected in the early program. He encouraged me to apply and I did. When I came to the space program after never having dreamed about being an astronaut, I thought I was going to the moon. You know, I figured I would fly a couple of times on a shuttle, then I was off to the moon, and I might be around long enough to go to Mars. So, when Neil Armstrong and everybody else in 1969 said we'd be on Mars in 1981 that was the trajectory for the nation. The nation was not in these dire economic times. I'm telling you now, President Obama and I say we are going to have humans in the Martian environment by 2030. We're saying that in a time of very, very strained economics because we have a plan to get us there and I think we're going to do it.

Bill Plante: But can a kid from Colombia, South Carolina today aspire to be an astronaut?

Charles Bolden: I hope a kid from Colombia, South Carolina today has an application among the 6,300 that we just received for the class of 2013. And if not, I'm going to be very disappointed.

Bill Plante: You've got a huge budget, 17 billion dollars but there--

Charles Bolden: --You're the only one who refers to it as a huge budget! But that's a lot of money, you're right.

Bill Plante: -- But it sounds like a lot of money I think, to--

Charles Bolden: --it's a lot of money, it's a lot of money.

Bill Plante: --and there are going to be a lot of other agencies in the federal government in a time of retrenchment reaching out for pieces of that. How are you going to be able to do all of these things?

Charles Bolden: Well it's because we cooperate with other agencies in the government. We work collaboratively with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, we work very collaboratively with the Department of Defense and other agencies across the government, because we produce technology, whether it's sensors that are on satellites in space helping us with climate or environmental issues, or defense issues, that's what we do. We have the people who develop the technologies, check them out, and then turn them over to people who are going to use them for operational uses.

Bill Plante: You know I must say, sitting here listening to you, I would think there's nothing amiss in the U.S. space program, that everything was just dandy--

Charles Bolden: Hunky-Dory.

Bill Plante: --But a lot of people think we've, the U.S. has lost a lot of prestige by not having...

Charles Bolden: I always say I wish people could spend more time with me, or any of my 17,000 employees around the world, or the 40,000 contractors we have who believe in the future, who are very positive about where we're going. Very positive about the trajectory that President Obama's allowed us to be on with his repeated request for funding, for increased funding for technology development, for science, for human space flight. And, you know, we're going to do okay as long as the nation stays focused, and they're not where I'd like for us to be to be quite honest. I am very hopeful that we will reignite the debate on where humans, particularly the United States, should be in terms of human exploration of our universe.

Bill Plante: Because there does seem to be a sort of loss of interest in the space program...

Charles Bolden: It depends on where you go. If I go into schools today, and I've seen, Bill I'll tell you, I've seen it like this when I was in the shuttle program in the 80s and 90s where I couldn't walk in a classroom and ask 'who wanted to be an astronaut,' every hand went up. There was a period of time when I could walk into a classroom and maybe one or two hands went up. If I go into a classroom today and I ask, 'who wants to go to space,' most of the hands in the classroom go up. You all did something on, I think it was yesterday on the morning news where somebody went into a school, I think it was over in Maryland--high school--I was shocked. I was pleasantly surprised when every single kid in that class said they wanted to go to space. I wouldn't--you wouldn't see that two years ago. So that to me was exciting. We need to listen to kids.

Bill Plante: This nation has always been about the "next frontier," since the beginning, do we still have one?

Charles Bolden: yeah. The next frontier--there are several next frontiers. For NASA the next frontier includes the oceans, believe it or not, because we participate, we actually had a NASA JPL engineer who was on the James Cameron team in the Mariana Trench. And we have an experimental laboratory called NEEMO that's off the coast of the Florida Keys where we send astronauts and scientists down below the ocean to study the depths of our planet. Our planet's huge and we don't understand a lot about the depths of the ocean. We don't understand a lot, at least as much as we should, about atmosphere in which we live. And we don't understand anything about the rest of the universe. I listened to Neil DeGrasse Tyson when I was in Colorado, and he was talking about atmosphere and he compared it to the skin of an onion. You know it's all relative. And I want kids to get excited about the vast majority of the universe, the vast majority of the universe where humans should be, should have been by now but weren't because life happened. You know we had the Challenger occur, that's why I never got to the moon. I am firmly convinced that had we not lost Challenger in 1986, Charlie Bolden sitting here as the NASA Administrator probably would've never been the NASA Administrator because I would've gone to the moon and then maybe on to Mars. Life happened, and we were stopped dead in our tracks and it's taken the nation some time to get its courage back. Its courage to--I'm trying to get people to understand you have to be willing to fail. You don't want to, but you have to understand in the things that we do, we're in risky business, that's why we're here. I mean, that's why every one of my 17,000 people comes to work. They love being in a very risky business because they understand the rewards for what we do are tremendous. They're, I don't want to use the term "astronomical," but there are astronomical returns on our investment because what we do is very risky. And that means that you're going to have some dark days....we hope not to see them soon!

Bill Plante: With 1969 in mind, what's your prediction for when Americans get to Mars?

Charles Bolden: 2030s. I follow orders, my President told me--he challenged us, he challenged us at NASA to have humans in the Martian environment by the mid-2030s and we're gonna do that. We have a lot of work to do and that's why I really want young people all the way from elementary school on up through graduate school to help us. There are a lot of questions we have to answer, technically, psychologically, you know, 8 months on a trip to Mars that's a long time for a human being. We've lived and worked in space for 6 months, we haven't made the 8-month trek one way yet so we got a lot of work to do but we'll get there. So put it on the calendar, mid-2030s.

Bill Plante: NASA Director Charles Bolden thank you very much

Charles Bolden: That's it [laughs] Thank you Bill.

Bill Plante: This is "Face to Face" be sure to tune in Sunday for "Face the Nation."