NASA chief Bolden talks NASA, astronomy

By Phil Plait | January 5, 2010 12:09 pm

bolden_AASI’m at the annual winter American Astronomical Society meeting, and just left an interesting address by the new NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden. He’s a former astronaut (he was on the initial Hubble Shuttle mission back in 1990) and Marine corps pilot, but now he’s the top guy at NASA.

It’s a tradition for the NASA head to speak at the AAS meetings. I’ve heard talks from ex-Admins Dan Goldin, Sean O’Keefe, and Mike Griffin, and this one was very different. NASA is at a very tumultuous point in its history, with the Shuttle winding down, the future of the Constellation rocket program uncertain and under fire, and even the direction of the agency itself unclear. Because of this, and because President Obama has not made a public policy statement about these issues yet, Bolden could not give a nuts-and-bolts speech, which is understandable. For those of you who weren’t following my live comments on Twitter during the talk, here are some of the highlights.

He was very clear that we all need to do what we can to inspire kids about science. In a remarkable turn, he literally choked up on stage while talking about putting together a telescope with his granddaughter, and saying we need to get more kids to look through eyepieces. "Look at this!" he said, "This is what we do!" That resonates with me, of course; I’ve made that exact comment on this blog dozens of times.

NASA logoHe also said that manned space flight would not be paid off the back of science. This generated applause from the audience. However, I’ve heard that before, just a few years ago from Mike Griffin… and then saw science missions’ funding cut back to pay for the lunar exploration program. So while I agree with Bolden’s sentiment, I don’t know if he can pull that particular feat off. I sure hope he can.

When asked about the issues with delays in the Shuttle replacement, he stated that "This President won’t be the one who presides over the demise of the manned space program." (quoting from my memory of what he said). He also stated how strongly Obama supports science; something we already know but it’s damn good to hear it again.

He also said, "If you had told me 20 years ago that we wouldn’t be back on the Moon by now, I’d have said you were smoking dope." That was great to hear! I know a lot of us outside of NASA have been saying that for years, but it was refreshing and wonderful to hear the head of NASA saying it, and saying it so frankly. He even repeated the statement to make sure we got it. Very cool indeed.

Overall, Bolden reinforced how committed NASA is to science — something that needs to be said when addressing 1000+ astronomers, who traditionally and by large majority tend to support unmanned robotic exploration over the much more expensive and usually less-scientifically oriented manned flight. He stressed that we all need to be teachers, and we all need to be the inspiration for the next generation. I agree in general, and certainly in specifics about inspiration.

So this first date with the NASA chief went as a lot of first dates go. Hopeful, with some reservations on promises made based on the delivery of further evidence, but… hopeful.

[During the talk I sat next to my dear friend and woman-full-of-awesome Pamela Gay, who has posted her thoughts on this as well.]

MORE ABOUT: Charlie Bolden

Comments (27)

  1. Adam

    I contributed to Obama, voted for him and I strongly support him, but I’ve been very unhappy with his unwillingness to get in front of all of these issues he had campaigned on.

  2. Charles Boyer

    While Bolden can voice his plans and the plans of the administration, it would do people well to remember that NASA is subject to the whims of Congress.

    If Congress mandates ongoing development of Ares I, for example, Bolden and NASA are required to do exactly that. And if Congress decides to ground manned flight, so it will be.

  3. Trebuchet

    You quote Bolden saying “If you had told me 20 years ago that we wouldn’t be back on the Moon by now, I’d have said you were smoking dope.”

    If that had been 40 years ago, I’d agree. But 20 years ago was 1990 when there was not the slightest inkling of a plan for going back to the moon. Manned spaceflight was ISS and Shuttle, and nothing else. I’d say anyone who thought in 1990 that we’d be back to the moon by now may have been the one smoking dope.

  4. Jeff Keogh


    How many women is Pamela? She must be somethin’ else!

  5. Matt Gemmell

    Call it starry-eyed optimism but I think the next 5, 10 and 20 years in science in general and astronomy in particular are going to be absolutely amazing.

    …and not just because I will be done getting my science degrees somewhere in that time period!

  6. Mike

    Great to hear, but as they say: show me the money! Or, in this case, fresh footprints in the lunar soil!

  7. @4 Since you brought her up, I have to give a shout out to Pamela Gay, too. She has an absolutely lovely voice and manner in the AstronomyCast podcast, and truly makes it one of the most listenable and smartest podcasts around.

    I wanted to much to like Neil Degrasse Tyson’s podcast, but after a couple of grating listens with his horrible cohost, I had to stop. He’s very listenable and above all, very enthusiastic and fun, but the whole smart person/dumb person format is just annoying as hell.

  8. Pete

    “If you had told me 20 years ago that we wouldn’t be back on the Moon by now, I’d have said you were smoking dope.”

    How come only the people smoking dope seem to get it right?

  9. John Keller


    The first president Bush had a return to the moon plan as well as a Mars program.

    When President Obama was elected, I made the following comment, “Talk is cheap” and “Deeds not words.” Other than his words , I see no real support for science.

  10. giffy

    This “He was very clear that we all need to do what we can to inspire kids about science.” somewhat contradicts this “He also said that manned space flight would not be paid off the back of science.”.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the robotic missions, telescopes, and the rest, but no picture from Hubble, no data from the Mars rovers, compares to the image on a human stepping of a metal ladder onto the surface of another world.

    You want kids excited about space? Send people to Mars, comets, asteroids, etc. The science is important, but so is image and excitement. NASA needs to be on the leading edge, challenging what we thought was possible,

  11. The ‘Man vs. Robot’ argument comes up every time I get together with my NASA buddy.

    In my mind the science is much more important than the mechanism by which it is acquired.
    (My OdysseyKid and I build robots so I guess I am prejudiced)

  12. Trebuchet

    Regarding my comment number 3, Pamela Gay doesn’t quote the “20 year” timeframe. She does have him saying “If you’d told me when I was training to be an astronaught…” which would be a tad earlier. (And yes, that’s how she spelled astronaut!)

  13. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    an astronaught

    Now, that is literary pessimism!

  14. Jamey

    To my mind, the argument over man vs. machine in space comes down to saying who cares about science in the long run, let’s get the science I need for my career *NOW*.

    Kids aren’t going to be really interested in space until it’s something they honestly believe that they have a realistic chance of being involved in, and the vast majority know it’s not. They have no stake in space travel, because they don’t believe they’ll ever be able to. They know they’re not smart enough to get the advanced degrees required while at the same time developing the level of physical fitness required. NASA needs fewer “superman” astronauts, and more “just a guy” astronauts.

    The short-term focus isn’t that great, either. Satellites are put up with a lifespan of 2-3 years projected, and nobody bothers to design the helium tanks to be recharged, or the batteries replaced. Hubble is, from all accounts, unique in the idea that it could actually be serviced – no other satellite I’ve heard of has put any thought into that.

    So, men have nothing to do in space that a robot can’t do better, because nothing is put in space that they can do better than the robots. As far as I have heard, the ISS is doing very little towards making itself closer to self-sufficient – and why should they? They’re just going to de-orbit it in another 5 years or so. NASA is putting up *NOTHING* with the idea that in 50 years, it’ll either still be doing its job, or it’ll have been recycled into new developments.

    No, there’s no reason to put humans in space at this point – and with the way things are developing, there never will be. And so, the Fermi Paradox will be explained – we just didn’t give a damn enough to find and be found.

  15. Petrolonfire

    Sounds like a great speech & I like what I’ve heard as reported here too. :-)

    However talk is cheap & while hot air may fuel balloons nicely its never got a rocket into space. I want to see the rockets fly – lets light this candle!

    More importantly still, let’s see they get the funds they need. Over to, sigh, Congress. :-(

    @ 11. Jamey:

    They’re just going to de-orbit it [the ISS] in another 5 years or so.

    Really? I don’t think that’s right – is it?

    As for

    No, there’s no reason to put humans in space at this point

    Au Contraire, there are lots of reasons from the scientific (what we can learn) to the political (national prestiege) to the spiritual. (Because its there & human destiny & nature is to explore.) There are even economic reasons already – not so much yet for what’s in space and what we can do there but more for jobs on the ground.

    Whether you think these reasons are strong *enough* is another matter again but they do exist and many people – myself incl. – think they are more than enough to justify human and other spaceflight.

  16. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Just a thought but why don’t we look at mass-producing rockets and spacecraft in the same way we mass produce cars?

    Obviously not *exactly* the same way or we’d end up with a car instead of a rocket 😉

    Yes it’d obviously cost more but y’know what I mean … imgine if instead of five or so shuttle sthe US ha dafleet of ten or fifteen or twenty otr fifty of them and was constantly building more and better versions? Like aircarft types. Imagine selling the shuttles for extra funds to our allies like Australia, Canada, England, Holland, India, etc ..

    Could that be the way to go & worth seriously considering? Is there any reason why can’t try that?

    Could NASA purchase say 10 or even 100 spacecraft like Spaceship Two or the Branson’s VSS Enterprise for use as orbital vehicles?

  17. Brian Too

    My feeling is that the robotic missions have been a clear cut success, on the whole. Lots of science, lots of successful missions, even lots of things with which to interest the public.

    The manned missions? Not bad, but they are going to get increasingly risky the further out they must travel. And the expense! Wow! Robot missions are cheap by comparison.

    Therefore let’s play to what we can do well. Eventually we’ll send people out but let’s get really good with the robots first.

    Besides, remember what happened when we got to the moon. It wasn’t just that the space race was over. The moon was actually a pretty boring place for the average citizen. Scientific excitement Public excitement.

    I’m concerned that if we go to Mars, the public will mostly decide that it’s much like the Moon in that way. No life, no liquid water, little weather, little that changes on human timescales. Very desert like (desert fans will undoubtedly protest).

    Even if we discover microbial life on Mars, will that really galvanize the public? Do bacteria thrill the people here on Earth? How about algae? No?

    You can say it doesn’t matter, or there are enough people who care about such things, but the public funds the NASA missions. When you send people out into space, yes the public will be interested in the astronauts and that will hold their interest for a while. The downside is if something goes wrong. Manned missions really up the ante and it’s a public relations matter that can give NASA a lot of problems while sucking up all the agency’s funds.

  18. Ted

    I was not terribly impressed. There were little specifics. To be honest, I almost preferred Griffin’s talk, which was at least forthright. This seemed like a lot of pap and cliches and stuff we wanted to hear designed to placate us until the ax falls.

  19. Charles Evo

    NASA could avoid an expensive ‘Battlestar Galactica’ approach to manned missions to Mars by taking seriously something like Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct plan for manned missions to Mars.

  20. Jamey

    @Brian Too: “Therefore let’s play to what we can do well. Eventually we’ll send people out but let’s get really good with the robots first.”

    Your rational is exactly the reason we’ll *NEVER* get out into Space. There’ll always be *SOMETHING* we’ll be able to do better with some special-purpose robot, than a human will be able to do when measured against the same task. And people will keep saying “Why should we take the risk?”

    I am fairly certain America has given up on going to space. Virgin Galactic will go – and will be hung up with enough regulations that they’ll always be a very expensive sub-orbital hop. Maybe, at some point, they’ll become a version of the Concorde – just seen as a relatively quick way to get from one continent to another. Likewise, Bigelow and his inflatable space habitats. As long as he’s only housing cargos, that’ll be fine – as soon as *PEOPLE* start aiming for them, safety regulations and other roadblocks will be thrown up.

    I don’t really expect the Chinese or Indians to do anything real in the lines of colonizing Outer Space – the Chinese will send a few men to the Moon much like we did, more or less as a way of claiming that they are as good as the Americans.

    I greatly fear the human race, as a whole, has given up.

    Frankly, don’t we *REALLY* have enough data already to go through on the different planets, and the galaxies? How much of the Hubble’s data has actually been *thoroughly* examined? How many more surprises like that green ghost from a few months ago are already on exposed plates that nobody’s really looked carefully at? How closely has the data from the last lunar mapping satellite been picked over? How many more “skylights” are there, already visible in photos that just haven’t been scoured?

    Meanwhile, the ISS holds *SIX* people at a time. How much of their time is devoted to actually doing science, and how much is devoted to running the station?

    There were 112 deaths associated with the construction of Hoover Dam, a far smaller undertaking, including according to legend, 7 bodies entombed in the concrete. The settling of the American West accounted for untold numbers of deaths. The American Space Program has a long way to go before it really has a body count worth worrying about – but it should be a far far bigger project than it is.

    “When you send people out into space, yes the public will be interested in the astronauts and that will hold their interest for a while. The downside is if something goes wrong. Manned missions really up the ante and it’s a public relations matter that can give NASA a lot of problems while sucking up all the agency’s funds.”

    As I said earlier – the problem is that far too few people are going into Space. Hell, NASA fought against the space tourists to the ISS – and only backed down due to public hue and cry. I’m just waiting to see what Mr. Laliberte’ does with Cirque du Soliel as a result of his trip. I just wish I could fund a trip for Jeanne Robinson.

  21. Gary Ansorge

    14. Jamey

    ” And so, the Fermi Paradox will be explained – we just didn’t give a damn enough to find and be found.”

    Which is a very real possibility. Expanding into a new, alien environment is HARD, dangerous and energy intensive. The only reason life had to colonize land was for resources and that’s the only way we’ll every really succeed in colonizing space,,,for resources. I fear that won’t happen while we have the extra resources to accomplish the task. It may be (see MAcro-Scope) that nearly all technologically sophisticated species reach this point, decide it’s too hard and end up dying in their own wastes and planetary resource collapse. Wouldn’t it be a bummer if Malthus was right and Fermi merely explicated the question that defines the limits to sentient expansion?

    That we’re just to lazy to survive, too fearful and too damn short sighted?

    GAry 7
    Supermen are cool for exploration but for REAL success in space, we need everything humanity has to offer: scientists, engineers, electricians, plumbers, mechanics, postal clerks, strippers, hookers, con men and police, nuns, saints and sinners. Humanity may not be perfect but we are definitely REAL.

  22. Travis

    Throwing up more robots may seem practical but it is also risky. Sure you get lots of great science but the average voter doesn’t care about that. They want grandeur. So when a robotic mission fails…….what’s the first thing they always report about it? It’s cost!?! It’s never “probe to Mars crashes” it’s always “$300 million probe to Mars crashes!” Manned missions may be a buttload more expensive but it seems that people are willing to fund them and merely tolerate the unmanned stuff so long as they work.

    You may think it’s great if NASA cut out the manned missions because you think all that money would be diverted into unmanned missions but what would really happen is that NASA would just get it’s budget slashed to the bone and there wouldn’t be either.

  23. Messier Tidy Upper

    @11. TexasOdysseyCoach (Gene) Says:

    The ‘Man vs. Robot’ argument comes up every time I get together with my NASA buddy.

    Why do people always seem to make this mistake of either men *or* robots? We can & should have *both* working together!

    I think it would be very dangerous and misleading to assume budget cuts to one (eg. manned spaceflight) are going to lead to more funding for the other. (Ie. robotic probes) More likely if funding to one sector is cutting then funding to the other will also be cut & vice versa – just like Travis (#22) said. If you support robotic spacecraft there’s no reason not to also support human space exploration & vice versa.

    The same applies too for the public space agencies versus private space companies debate – both have their place and can help each other progress.

    I like the sound of that speech but will only believe it when I see it happen. There have been too many talks and not enough flights for too long.

  24. MadScientist

    Although I think human exploration of space is awesome (after all my dad was one of the numerous people involved in the Apollo 11 mission), with the limited resources we have and other pressing earthly issues, I’m all in favor of unmanned exploration. It would be great if we could at least maintain and slowly develop technology for heavy lift vehicles rather than losing it all as what happened to the Saturn project – let’s say bigger rockets and let’s push the ISS to a higher orbit. We have many more mundane issues to tackle such as the planet’s excessive population; perhaps if we can improve things here on earth a later generation will have the luxury of being able to put humans back on the moon.

    Even the unmanned missions are not without their problems – so many missions to Mars have failed and even closer to home quite a few missions fail (such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory). Such missions are often over a decade in planning and execution; some people involved at the start don’t even live to see the instruments launch. When something goes wrong, more often than not several hundred or even thousands of working years worth of effort is lost. When a mission succeeds we learn a little more – very little – we always think of new experiments to run and hope we can try again.

    @Travis: The continued existence of NASA does not depend at all on the general public (unless you get massive protests demanding that NASA be shut down). The funding is unbelievably complex, with certain funds being tied to certain projects and otherwise not available to NASA – so the agency can’t simply cut support for 1 program and expect to be able to divert the money to another. There’s an awful lot of politics going on as well so I wouldn’t even be optimistic about the chief going to congress and saying “look, I’d like your approval to shut down Project X and put the $2B into Project Z instead” – oh no, someone will be screaming “No! That money was supposed to go to MY constituency!” For example, you just try to shut down the Glenn Research Center in Ohio so you can provide better funding for the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Or perhaps shutting down the Goddard Space Flight Center in favor of Marshall.

  25. Ken

    I think something that’s missed in the manned vs. unmanned debate is that today most unmanned exploration is about science while manned space is about *engineering*. Of course ISS isn’t producing much science yet, they’re still building the thing. (When you build a new lab building, what do yo do first – take scientific measurements or install the electric wiring?) Just like a lab needs human technicians to actually make the more elaborate experiments happen, so too you would get an advantage by having humans on hand for spaceborne experiments (“hey the dang robot’s stuck in the sand again – your turn to go drag it out”).

    Human spaceflight is *hard*, and it isn’t going to get any easier or cheaper by putting it off until later.

    @Petrolonfire: The US contribution to ISS is currently funded through 2016. If that is not extended we basically have two options: deorbit it before it becomes a hazard or hand it over to someone who is interested in manned spaceflight (like the Chinese maybe). Either way, don’t ever bet on getting international cooperation for a major project again, not for a long long time.

    @Plutonium: SpaceShip Two (aka VSS Enterprise) is strictly a suborbital vehicle. It has neither the power to achieve orbital velocites nor a means of reentry at those speeds. Hopefully though they will bring in enough revenues from zero-gee billionaires to fund a true orbital vehicle …

    @Jamey: Right on! Part of the problem, and it’s more of a political and public perception problem, is that we must be willing to tolerate short-term failures in order to achieve long-term success. How many rockets blew up before we got Explorer I off the ground? How many barnstormers died when their planes crashed? Pretty much all of us have seen the films of engineers learning about resonance and wind effects on their bridge. Doctors were downright hazardous until they started learning what medicines worked and what didn’t. The learning curve is expensive, messy and sometimes deadly. But in the long run we end up with technologies that are safe, cheap, and taken for granted.

  26. Harman Smith

    The problem is funding. Check this out.

    When I read this, I thought to myself: “Do all three”. What is our excuse? Like Ken said… delaying things isn’t going to make things easier. This is the stuff we have to do.

    At this point I’m thinking people will just need to chip in themselves instead of having to rely on the government to increase NASA’s funding. Other than pressuring congress & the president, what else can be done? Too many are too lazy about the idea of space exploration. We’re doomed if we don’t hurry up and get serious about this.

  27. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 25 Ken : Thanks. I thought I’d heard something about a newer model planned that was capable of orbital spaceflight? Guess that’s maybe just what they’re aiming for at this stage? Hopefully it will happen sooner rather than later.

    As I said before, it’d be great if we had mass produced spacecraft – like shuttles or Spaceship Twos Three‘s or whatever in the future just as we have mass-produced aircraft today. Seems to me that’d be the way to get costs down and more people into space which is what I think we need.

    I also support co-operation in space & hope the International Space Station brings nations closer and is the first step to an international human mission to Mars or an asteroid /comet, etc. I think the ISS critics need to wait until the station has been fully completed & operational before they slam what its (to them) not doing. It seems a little like criticising the Taj Mahal while it was halfway under construction. Come to think of it the ISS is a lot more useful if arguably less beautiful than the Taj Mahal, Sphinx and Eiffel Tower! 😉

    I hope the ISS remains in orbit for some decades to come and gets to fulfill its potential for Humanity & science. I’d prefer an O’Neill colony or Babylon-5 / DS9 type station but I guess those are far into the distant future & the ISS will have to do for now. Although I do think they need to give the ISS a proper name and not just an acronym! My suggestion is something along the lines of Friendship or Harmony would be good as a name for the overall station. (Yeah, I know the component modules have names but somehow that’s not quite the same.)


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