Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

Nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, retired Marine Corps Major General Charles Frank Bolden, Jr., began his duties as the twelfth Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration on July 17, 2009. As Administrator, he leads the NASA team and manages its resources to advance the agency's missions and goals.

Bolden's confirmation marks the beginning of his second stint with the nation's space agency. His 34-year career with the Marine Corps included 14 years as a member of NASA's Astronaut Office. After joining the office in 1980, he traveled to orbit four times aboard the space shuttle between 1986 and 1994, commanding two of the missions. His flights included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the first joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission, which featured a cosmonaut as a member of his crew.

Born in Columbia, South Carolina on August 19, 1946, during the pre-civil rights era, Charles Bolden had little reason to anticipate a future in space exploration. Yet by 1992, when he was selected by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) head Dan Goldin to help restructure the agency, he had distinguished himself not only as an accomplished astronaut, but also as an able administrator.

Bolden attributes his professional success to the advances made in the United States by pioneers in the civil rights movement and to an academic discipline instilled in him by his parents, both of whom were educators. "I was always encouraged to study," he told CBB. "I'm very thankful for that now." A serious student at an early age, Bolden overcame the obstacles presented by a segregated school system to graduate with honors from C. A. Johnson High School.

The values that he developed as a young student served him well throughout his academic career. In 1968 Charles Bolden graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a bachelor's degree in electrical science in 1968, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. After completing flight training in 1970, he became a naval aviator.  Bolden flew more than 100 combat missions in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, while stationed in Namphong, Thailand, from 1972-1973.

In 1977 Charles Bolden earned a master's degree in systems management from the University of Southern California and in 1979 he completed test pilot training. While working at the Naval Air Test Center's Systems Engineering and Strike Aircraft Test Directorates, he tested a variety of ground attack aircraft until his selection as an astronaut candidate in 1980.

"When I was a kid," Charles Bolden explained in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB), "all astronauts were male, all astronauts were test pilots, all astronauts were white, and all astronauts were the same size. I didn't fit into most of these categories."

By the late seventies, NASA's astronaut profile had changed enough for Bolden to begin considering a professional career with the agency. "In 1977," Bolden explained, "NASA advertised for people who would be interested in participating in the space shuttle program, and I thought about it. But I didn't think I'd be selected. So I didn't apply." Two years later, after NASA had selected its first ethnically mixed group of recruits, he submitted his application, fully expecting that it would be rejected.

When he was admitted to the shuttle program among NASA's 1980 recruits, Bolden began what would become a high-profile career with the agency. Since that time, he has completed several space shuttle missions. In January of 1986, Charles Bolden piloted the space shuttle Columbia's mission STS-61C, with assignments that included launching a communications satellite and conducting experiments in astrophysics and materials processing.

On his second mission, which took place during the spring of 1990, Charles Bolden served as pilot on the space shuttle Discovery (STS-31), whose five-member crew successfully launched the $1.5 billion Hubble Space Telescope. In J. Alfred Phelps's They Had a Dream: The Story of African-American Astronauts, Bolden illustrated the power of the Hubble, explaining that if he stood on the moon with a nickel in his hand, "the Hubble Space Telescope could read from the earth the words, 'In God We Trust.'"

In 1992, two years after the Discovery flight, Charles Bolden commanded the crew of space shuttle Atlantis for mission STS-45, during which a group of multinational oceanographic, atmospheric, and climatic surveys were completed. The experiments were designed to improve our scientific understanding of the earth's climate and atmosphere.

Charlie Bolden encourages young African Americans to make their dreams a reality: "Believe in yourself," he was quoted as saying in They Had a Dream. "Don't let anybody else determine what your life is going to be. Pick some goal that's just slightly out of your reach, then go for it. Be persistent and don't be afraid of failing. Some of my best accomplishments ... have come after I've failed, picked myself up, and tried again."

Click on the links below for detailed information and photos on African American veterans who rose to the top of their field

Revolutionary & Civil War

The Revolutionary War set precedents for black military service. Both Africans and African Americans fought on both sides of this war, often as a means for a black slave to win his freedom.

World War I

When World War I broke out, there were four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry.

World War II

African Americans made up over one million of the more than 16 million U.S. men and women to serve in World War II. Some of these men served in infantry, artillery, and tank units.

Tuskegee Airmen

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American military aviators in the United States armed forces.

Vietnam War & Iraq

The Vietnam War saw the highest proportion of blacks ever to serve in an American war. During the height of the U.S. involvement blacks, who formed 11 percent of the American population, made up 12.6 percent of the soldiers in Vietnam.


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