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A Conversation with Charles F. Bolden, Jr., NASA Administrator

Speaker: Charles F. Bolden, Jr., NASA Administrator
Presider: Ralph J. Cicerone, President, National Academy of Sciences
May 24, 2010
Council on Foreign Relations

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RALPH J. CICERONE: Good evening. In the tradition of the Council on Foreign Relations, we do everything in a timely way here. We try to start on time and finish on time so that people who have other commitments can honor them.

My name is Ralph Cicerone. I'm a member of the Council. I work at the National Academy of Sciences, and my job tonight is to introduce our keynote featured participant tonight who will speak and answer questions a little bit later for you.

But before I do that, I want to remind you and ask you to turn off all of your portable electronic devices, things that could interfere either with the speaker or with our microphones. So turn off, if you will, your cell phones and Blackberries and everything else because it can interfere, and it doesn't interfere with the sound system.

The meeting tonight is officially on the record. That means that what people say can be repeated and attributed. We don't know if there are any invited press here tonight. I don't think there are, but otherwise it is formally on the record, though.

It's a great honor for me to introduce very briefly the current administrator of NASA, Major General Charles Bolden. In your programs for this evening, there's an attempt to squeeze a fantastic life so far into one page, and it didn't quite work because this guy has a long way to go, and there's still too much.

But you'll see that he grew up on the East Coast in South Carolina, went to the Naval Academy which, itself, is no mean feat, passing the entrance requirements and being selected and then graduating.

He went on, did service through the Marines and was a Marine pilot, served a very, very active tour of duty or more in Vietnam, went on to serve all over the world in various capacities for the military, became connected with the NASA's astronaut office and was an active member there for a dozen or 13 years, flew a number of space missions as an astronaut.

I know I've got lots of questions to ask him about that myself, but those of you who are present tonight for the daughters and sons event, that is, the daughters and sons, will get priority.

So after Administrator Bolden speaks for a while and we have a little discussion here, we'll turn the mike open to you, and I will try to give preference in recognizing people seated on the floor to the youngest folks here. So I may not get a chance to ask my questions. We'll see.

At this point, we'll ask Administrator Bolden to make some introductory comments and get us rolling, and then we'll have some back-and-forth here and then turn it over to the rest of you.

Once again, welcome. (Applause.)

GENERAL CHARLES F. BOLDEN JR.: Thank you all very much. It's a special pleasure for me to be here for a couple of reasons. One is for the young people here -- and all of you are young, to be quite honest -- but for the children of the more mature members, it's good to be here because, believe it or not, I've actually worked with many of your parents in past lives. And so it's good to see many of them.

You know, Sherri (sp), I had to remind her that she and I worked together when I was in the twilight of my years in the Marine Corps and I was the senior Marine Corps representative on a Naval Air Station called Miramar. And most people knew it as "Fighter Town USA."

And Sherri (sp), at the time, was trying to help us get it all cleaned up so that the Navy could hand it over to us and we could take it and, even more importantly, we could get the people in the city of San Diego to roll their sidewalks back out. They would understand that Marines were not ogres and all this other kind of stuff. So it was an interesting time for both of us.

You know, NASA is at an incredibly interesting time in its life and an incredibly challenging, interesting but what a wonderful opportunity we have. President Obama in the 2011 proposed budget has given us an opportunity to try to set the stage for many of you who are here as students or as sons and daughters to fulfill some of the things that you only dream about.

You know, when I came to the space program in 1980, my plans were few. I was going to fly the shuttle once or twice, and then I was going to go to the moon. You know, that was my belief at that time. And while most of the youngsters here won't remember, we were relatively well on our way, and then we had a disaster strike in the form of the Challenger accident.

And it really set everything back. And my dream of going to the moon, which was -- it was not a lifelong dream, by the way. It's important for you all to understand. I never dreamed of being an astronaut when I was growing up in South Carolina.

Never wanted to fly airplanes, never dreamed of being an astronaut, definitely did not want to be a Marine. And other than that, you know, everything else was okay. (Laughter.)

I went to the Naval Academy because I had seen a program called "Men of Annapolis" on television. And it was an incredible story about life at the Naval Academy and for the young men, because you are young men, the thing that impressed me the most was all the beautiful girls that came down on the weekends and everything else, and the lovely uniforms that the midshipmen wore.

So that's what inspired me to want to be a midshipman. And my plan was to go to a ship somewhere, spend five years, go back to grad school, get a master's degree in electrical engineering and make money.

And so when I graduated from the Naval Academy and found myself going to the Marine Corps and then everything else from there, if I were to grade myself on my performance and the realization of my life's ambitions as a Naval Academy graduate, I would have to give myself an F because I have done nothing that I went to the Naval Academy to do. And I have done nothing in my adult life that, as late as my senior year at the Naval Academy, I ever thought I would do.

You know, I ended up going into a service I said I would not of one person. He was a young man by the name of -- young man, he was older that I by a few years -- but Major John Reilly Love, who passed away a couple of months ago. He was a Marine, and he was my first company officer at the Naval Academy.

And he was incredibly inspirational to me. He was tough and demanding but incredibly fair. He reminded me of my dad. And so when it was time to graduate from the Naval Academy, I said I want to be like him. So that's how I became a Marine. I found I didn't like crawling around in the mud as I thought I would, and I said something else has got to be better. And my wife said, "Why don't we go to Pensacola?"

And so I followed Michael O'Brian back there in the back.

O'B, stand up if you will or raise your hand.

Oh, that's true. That's true. (Laughter.)

But Mr. Michael O'Brian, O'B, as he is affectionately called -- O'B is responsible for all of our external relations and intergovernmental operations. So he and I traveled the world together trying to do what we both love and what President Obama has asked us to do in expanding NASA's international involvement and international partnerships with particular interest on reaching out to Muslim nations. And so it's -- that's why I said we've got to talk. Okay?

Because it is something that's different for NASA. There are a number of things that are different. We think about education. We always did, but we put a little bit more emphasis into it now than we did before. And when I talk about education, it's education below the college level. Before, NASA was focused on the college and university and post-doc -- post-graduate level because we were looking for employees, prospective employees.

We, like every industry today, realize that, unless we can get kids through elementary, junior high and high school, there are going to be none to go to go college campuses to study like you. You know, you want to study biomedical engineering, but there won't be a lot like you that want to do that. And everyone will want to go to business, which is okay, but I need engineers. I need everything, but I need engineers.

And so that's why we're starting to focus a little bit more on education.

International relations is incredible for us. So, hopefully, you will have some questions about that tonight. The international space station recently won the Collier Award. I don't know how many of you have any clue what the Collier Award is, but it is the highest award in the United States given in aeronautics and astronautics for something that has really contributed to the fields of aeronautics and astronautics that makes a difference in the world.

And Secretary Clinton, the secretary of State wrote a letter of endorsement for the International Space Station to be recognized with the Collier Award, and we ended up winning it for 2009. And we just -- my deputy, Lori Garver, came back to Washington when we were down in Florida getting ready to launch a space shuttle, and she came back with Mike O'Brian, and they accepted the Collier Award. So it's incredible.

The thing about the space station is it allows us to get people together of all different ilks -- nationalities, face, beliefs, everything -- and put them in an environment where they have to work together. We have a six-person crew on board right now -- Russian, Japanese, American. That is typical of the makeup of the international space station.

The crew of Atlantis that just departed yesterday, while they were there, we had 12 people on board. We've actually had 13 people on board from various times really doing a lot of work. So I'm excited about that.

What other kinds of things would I like for you to talk about or like to ask questions about? Where are we going? We do four different things. We do STEM. Does everybody know what STEM is? Science, technology, engineering and math.

I like to brag about the fact that NASA is the second-best organization I've ever been associated with. Now, some of you will say, why in the world are you saying second best? Well, because I'm a Marine. (Laughter.)

So the best organization I've ever been associated with is the United States Marine Corps, and that won't change. But the second-best group of human beings that I know of in the world are people who make up the NASA family. And we do science, engineering, technology, mathematics every single day.

We are risk takers. That's our business. We send people in harm's way. We have people on the International Space Station -- have had them there for 10 years now. We realize every time we launch and try to land that, you know, things could go wrong, and they have twice, unfortunately.

But everybody who comes to this program comes because they love it and they love exploration and they want to make a difference.

We have scientists who do incredible things. We have Nobel laureates. You name it, and we have it. And I have probably talked enough, so let me -- I'm going to take my seat over here. That's my introduction trying to entice you to ask questions.

So, please, there are two rules. Rule No. 1, you can ask questions whenever Dr. Cicerone says you can. And Rule No. 2 is there are no dumb questions.

So anybody who thinks that they're going to be embarrassed by asking a dumb question, forget it. You can't ask a dumb question. There is somebody else sitting, you know, at one of these tables who wants to ask the question that you're embarrassed to ask, so just ask it. Okay? (Applause.)

CICERONE: You don't know how to refer to him. Should it be General --

BOLDEN: Charlie.

CICERONE: Should it be General? Should be it be Administrator? Should it be Mister?

BOLDEN: Charlie.

CICERONE: Charlie, thank you.

I really like something that you started off with talking about how you've done so much in life that you never planned to when you went to the Naval Academy. And I've had an opportunity to work with a lot of college students and high school students in my life, and most of them think that you have to have your mind made up when you're 14 or 15 years old. And if they see a businessman or if they see a woman who's a doctor or they see a professor, they think that that person knew what he or she was going to do all along. And yet you just told us your life has gone in so many different directions.

Are you the kind of person who doesn't like to plan or you do like to plan? How many of your friends did all kinds of different things, and how many of them stayed right on the line that they were headed for?

BOLDEN: I really do like to plan. It's just that my mom and dad -- you know, I grew up in South Carolina, as I said before. My mom and dad were teachers. And so one of the things that they instilled in my brother and me was you can do anything -- anything -- that you want to do as long as you're willing to study, work hard and as long as you're not afraid of failing.

And so that was what -- that's the way I grew up. I always liked to plan, and people -- a lot of people say, you know, that I'm a meticulous planner. I am not at all. But I always realized that you need to leave some flexibility.

And the reason I tell kids all the time when they ask what do you need to study to be an astronaut, I tell them math and science is essential no matter what you want to do. Whether you want to be a biomedical engineer or an astronaut or an artist or a musician, math and science is pretty essential.

But, again, in today's world, you need the language arts. So I would say, you know, take literature as much as you can -- English. Learn to read, write, speak well because that's where -- you're going to have to interface with people at some time. And, you know, you can talk whatever dialect you want to speak on the street, and that's okay, but at some point, you're going to have to go in and deal with real serious people, and they really don't have time for it. So you need to be able to converse.

Foreign languages -- I don't speak foreign languages, and that's -- if there is -- I'm not one who regrets anything. I don't, because I don't want to change my life or anything -- I have three beautiful granddaughters, and so if I went back and changed something, I might not have one or all of them. So I don't regret anything.

But if there are things I wish I could do, I wish I could speak a foreign language fluently. Foreign language is critical because, with the foreign language generally comes from cultural immersion, and we need to understand other people and other cultures better than we do.

CICERONE: So what you emphasize in planning is really being prepared educationally, for example?

BOLDEN: The more diverse you can make yourself, the better off you are. I don't want to say you should be a jack of all trades and a master of none. I don't think that's wise. But the more diversity you can put in your kit bag as you go off to college coming out of high school -- it's great to have an idea of what you think you want to be coming out of high school. But don't be afraid of saying I made a mistake. I thought that's what I wanted to do, but that's not where my passion is.

I thought since seventh grade I wanted to go to the Naval Academy -- seventh grade. And I fought to get into the Naval Academy. Finally, got an appointment. I grew up in segregated South Carolina. And, you know, I knew I was not going to get an appointment from either of my two state senators or my representatives, so I based my hope on getting an appointment from the vice president who, at the time, was Lyndon Johnson.

My senior year, President Kennedy was assassinated, and so Vice President Johnson became the president, and I wasn't eligible for a presidential appointment. So I just kind of saw my dreams of going to the Naval Academy flitter away. But I wrote the president and I said, you know, I know I'm not eligible, but I've been writing you for four years now. (Laughter.) And you kept saying, "Write when you're a senior."

But about that, I was pretty certain I wanted them to know who I was. I say the same thing about my faith. I pray. And the reason I pray is because every once in a while, I have problems. And I figure that, you know, every once in a while you have problems that pop up like this and it's really critical, and that's not the time that I want to introduce myself to God. (Laughter.)

I want to be able to say, hey, it's me, you know, the guy that said this lousy prayer yesterday, and I'm in trouble. So I think -- (laughter) -- it's good to prepare yourself and give yourself as much leeway as you can. I believe that.

CICERONE: Well, you said that you weren't afraid to fail, and that allowed you to try some things. I think even at a low level, that's important because when you take courses when you're in high school or college and you find that there's something you really don't like, that's a good experience because you've learned something. Right?

BOLDEN: Incredibly true.

CICERONE: Trying things that you don't enjoy, you know you're not going to be good at, that might be a failure, but it's also a learning experience.

BOLDEN: One of the things I think is good today -- and I'm not sure because I'm not applying to college. But I hear that colleges are starting to realize that, you know, emphasis on grades and scores and the like, while important, that's not all there is to life.

And some of the universities like Stanford and some of the other better institutions put a lot of stock in what you -- how you can express yourself. You know, you may be a straight-A student, but if you can't write a paragraph about why you -- how you want to change the world and impress somebody, you're not going to get into Stanford, for example.

Or if you can't answer -- if you can't do critical thinking as a high school senior and at least take something that somebody throws at you, whether you know anything about it at all, and, you know, at least give your opinion, then you're not going to do well. And so sports is important. Some type of physical activity -- just try to make yourself as broad as you can while focusing on the thing that you think is your passion coming out of high school.

I cried every summer -- not every summer -- I cried every Sunday when I got a chance to call my mom and dad from the Naval Academy my plebe year because after getting there, after all the years of trying to get there, it was really hard. And I mean really hard.

And I decided I had made a big mistake. (Laughter.) And, you know, so when they let me call home, I would cry. I'd get under my table -- my desk sometimes in my room and cry because I just -- I was miserable. And I told my dad I want to come home. And he said, hang in there one more week. That was the only thing he ever told me. Fifty-two weeks. (Laughter.)

Hang in there just one more week. And so I hung in there for 52 weeks, and I got through plebe summer, plebe year and, you know, became an upperclassman. And I began to appreciate the Naval Academy. I never liked it when I was there, to be quite honest. It's not a place that you grow to like. It's like a lot of universities, you know, you learn to hate them while you're there and it's years after you graduate that you realize what it's given you and how rich it's made you. And then you look back -- I had to go through this with my son who is a Naval Academy graduate and explain to him that, you know, there will be a time that you will appreciate having been here. It is not going to happen while you're there. (Laughter.)

CICERONE: Well, I, for one, really appreciate hearing that from you so genuinely. Let me stay a little bit personal for a minute.

When I looked up some of the things you did when you were an astronaut, it seemed to me that the timing must have been that either all of your flights came after the Challenger accident or most of them.

BOLDEN: Three of the four.

CICERONE: Yeah. And for those of you who don't remember or weren't even born then, it was 1986 -- was it April?

BOLDEN: It was actually January 28 because I landed on the 18th on my first flight.

CICERONE: I should have remembered. That's my --

BOLDEN: So I landed 10 days prior to the Challenger accident. We were finishing our debrief that morning. We stopped for a little while to go into the conference room and the astronaut office and watch, and we watched like everybody else. And, you know, when we saw what happened, I think most of us were sitting there saying, okay, this isn't really happening. You know, this thing is going to fly out of this ball, but it didn't.

CICERONE: Did you have a different attitude at that point?

BOLDEN: After that?

CICERONE: After it.

BOLDEN: For about a nanosecond. You know, I seriously asked myself, right -- as I sat there and watched and we all kind of agonized about what had just happened, I asked myself if this was really what I wanted to do, you know, if I wanted to stay in the program or did I want to go ahead and leave since I had already flown once.

And like I said, it took me about a nanosecond to say, you know, I came here because I wanted to make a difference and I wanted to contribute. And it's just -- that's part of the risk, and I knew that.

So I decided I wanted to stay, and I flew my last three flights after Challenger.

CICERONE: I thought it was three or four out of four. Well, thank you.

You said that President Obama has unusually high interest in letting the other nations of the world understand our space program and maybe even participate. When you talk to people in those countries, are they interested mostly because they want to be a partner with the United States in space, that that's part of the draw? Or would they really rather go it alone?

BOLDEN: Everybody -- we have what we call -- for the International Space Station, there are five partner entities, and it's not nations. Let's see, O'B, it's 19 nations? Yeah.

But, you know, for example, it's Japan, the United States, Russia, Canada and the European Space Agency. The European Space Agency has a conglomerate of nations. And so they all say, every time we get together, we really need U.S. leadership. And they are -- they continue to encourage us as we go through this very difficult time with our space program trying to decide what it is we want to do and where we want to go with human space flight.

But none of them waiver -- and I think -- I don't know whether O'B remembers this or not, but we had our last heads of agency meeting in Tokyo about two months ago -- two or three months ago. And at the end in our public session, my counterpart from the Russian Space Agency, Mr. Permanov, made the statement -- he said, you know, we need the United States to maintain its leadership of this organization, and we need for the United States to be the leader so that the rest of us can help.

That was pretty impressive to me, and that was in a public gathering. He didn't have to say that. But they say it over and over and over again.

I will tell you, however, they all want to explore. And if we decide that we don't want to do it anymore or we don't want to accept the position of responsibility for leadership, they will go with someone else. And the nation, right now, that they all tend to think will be -- could be the emerging leader if we step aside is China. And so all of our international partners talk to China all the time.

You know, they all have established a working relationship with them for the most part. And so, you know, we've got to decide -- again, it's a very difficult decision for the United States because we look at things a lot differently than any other nation. I don't think any other nation worries about human rights, all these different things that we do. And so, you know, we established pretty tall criteria for who we're going to accept as a partner.

And so -- but everybody wants us to be the leader, but they will not give up exploration should we choose not to lead.

CICERONE: How about China itself? Do they have the same desire to work with us, or are they trying to be the leader?

BOLDEN: Interesting. I was at something called the International Space Medicine Summit in Houston, Texas, this past weekend. And it's an incredible gathering. We've done it four years now.

And it's done on the campus of Rice University. The Baker Institute and Rice sort of co-host it with an organization called The National Space Biomedical Research Institute. And there are representatives from the biomedical field from all over the world. The last two years, we've managed to get the Chinese to come and participate.

And just in a side meeting with the head of the Chinese Astronaut Training Center, a point that he made was, you know, we really want to be partners. We want to work with you. We don't want to be left out. And I said, hey, you know, that's great, but there are slight problems here.

We have problems with your approach to human rights and other things like that, and I don't make the decision as to whether or not we're going to, you know, we're going to work with you or not. We would like to, but there are hurdles that we have to overcome.

So they do want to work with us.

CICERONE: You don't see any nations that are really trying to step out completely on their own? What about India?

BOLDEN: Oh, India is a big partner, big-time, because India -- they got a significant increase in their budget for this year, and they spend -- and I'll have to ask O'B again it help me here. I think it's 85 percent of their budget is spent on what they call societal needs. It's earth science, climate change, those kinds of things, and they still insist that they're going to bring about a human space flight program, you know, by 2020 or so. They want to be able to launch humans to space on their own. They want that independent ability, but they still want to partner with us.

And they came back because they like what we do in terms of earth science and climatology. They like what we do in terms of planetary science. And they want to be a part of that.

So every nation -- Korea, Japan, China, Russia -- all of them want to have an independent, autonomous capability to do things, but all of them really would like to be partnered with the United States because they still consider that we are the, you know, the dominant nation that can take care of everybody, if you will.

CICERONE: Well, it's not too surprising for me. I'm an earth scientist, so I know that one of your NASA satellites has shown an ability just in the last year to see underground water in India. It's the first place where they make that claim that they can actually see seasonal changes in the underground water aquifers in India with drawdown from irrigation. This is awfully important. It's no wonder they want to work with you.

BOLDEN: We have a program that's called SERVIR -- S-E-R-V-I-R -- and it's one of these things that -- pretty cheap to do it. The U.S. Agency for International Development actually funds most of it. And what we did was we took 30-plus years of earth science data from all kinds of satellites and everything, and we put them in a database that's resident on the University of Alabama Huntsville campus and the Marshall Space Flight Center. And we focus on getting that information into the hands of third-world countries -- the governments of third-world countries that want to look at disaster -- you know, how do they handle disaster management? How do they do water resources management? How do they do crop planting and crop management and the like?

And it's because they have access to this data from NASA and NOAA satellites and they have the U.S. Agency for International Development that helps them to stand up a ground system that can bring this data down, and it's really good. We have actually -- we are trying to make inroads into introducing it to the U.S. Africa Command, General Ward and his folk out of Stuttgart, Germany, because it is a combatant command whose primary mission is not fighting wars. It's engagement in the continent of Africa so that we don't have to fight wars.

And they see it as a potential incredible tool because they can help people help themselves and in that way then -- in engagement, then you avoid the conflict and the need to go -- become combative.

CICERONE: You have a tremendous portfolio. You helped with the Hubble Space Telescope. You've got these people looking out into the farthest reaches of the universe, 14 billion light years away. We've got people looking at Earth. We've got people doing exploration, people working on planets, the million. You must have a lot of fun.

BOLDEN: We do fun stuff. (Laughter.) And as I tell everybody, we are -- if you don't want to take risks and you don't want to be in a risky business, then you don't want to work for NASA. We are a relatively risky organization because we put people and things at risk every day. But we think it's important to do so.

CICERONE: You mentioned an initiative of President Obama's that I think came out of his June speech in Cairo last year. Maybe you should tell people a little bit about that and what shape that's taking.

BOLDEN: If it's the Muslim -- the outreach to Muslim nations, in my very first conversation with the president and subsequent ones, he constantly reminds all of us who head federal agencies that he really feels it's invaluable for us to reach out to dominantly Muslim nations, not because he wants, you know, them to see anything about the United States as much as he wants to help them help others understand the richness of their heritage and the fact that, you know, math, science, astronomy -- there are a lot of very sophisticated scientific and mathematical fields that have their origins in dominantly Muslim nations.

We generally tend to think that, well, they don't know anything. Well, it is more than just -- they're in more than just the cradle of civilization in a lot of these places. They are the cradle of knowledge when it comes to technical things.

And so the president wants us to help them showcase themselves, and he feels that, particularly an organization like NASA that will allow them to become involved with earth-sensing satellites or other types of programs like that, it will be beneficial for both us and them.

It also, again, it increases the dialogue among people of different cultures, and it decreases the chances that we're going to have to engage them in conflict down the road. So it's important.

CICERONE: So science is a part of diplomacy?

BOLDEN: It is.

CICERONE: Great.

Well, let's throw it open. So for the next 30 minutes or so, it's yours. We have microphones, so all that I ask is that you wait for the microphone. If you stand up or shout or raise your hand, just wait until the microphone reaches you, and then, if you would, give us your name and where you're from and then go ahead and ask Mr. Bolden whatever you've like.

This young man over here?

QUESTIONER: I'm (Questioner's name deleted) from Westman (ph) Middle School.

Going to a middle school, as I have for the past three years, there's genuine problem with science in this country, and a lot of students, just from my own experience, when I say I'm really into science, they say, when am I going to need that? If I'm going to make millions of dollars, why do I care about science?

And I think that that's -- I think, like, when you look at a lot of the inventions that have become commonplace, a lot of them came out of the '60s when there was the big push for science with the space program. And I feel like that's sort of starting to wane now and we're losing science education.

And I think that NASA, as the government agency that most uses science day to day, plays an important role in that. And I guess my question is what are you guys planning to do to change the face of science?

BOLDEN: We're really trying to -- I appreciate the question. And one of the things we are trying to do --

MR. : (Off mike.)

BOLDEN: I am. I am. I've got him. (Laughter.)

You're probably going to hear a little bit about an initiative we have that's called the Summer of Innovation. And it's geared to -- one of the problems is teachers. And it's the fact that teachers in the elementary and middle school levels in particular have chosen to come there, but they don't feel very comfortable teaching math and science. And they would sometimes shy away from it.

Now, you probably have some relatively good teachers. I was very fortunate in seventh grade. I had two teachers who were incredible. One was my science teacher, the other one was my math teacher.

And I started participating in science fairs in seventh grade, and I never looked back. You know, Mr. James P. Neal (sp), my seventh-grade science teacher, really got me into science. And a long name, Mr. King Benjamin Lindbergh Jefco (sp), III was my math teacher, and he had been away for a summer and had learned New Math -- set theory, back then.

And he came back that year and said anybody who's interested in learning New Math, I can work with you at recess, I can work with you after school, but I'm available to do it.

So I was very fortunate in that I had two teachers who had really a confidence in their ability to teach math and science.

The Summer of Innovation endeavors to reach middle-school teachers and equip them with the necessary tools through what we call NASA content to begin to be comfortable in teaching math and science and then to reach the middle-school students and make them as excited about it as you are, you know, to give them an opportunity to do hands-on kinds of stuff.

In Massachusetts where we rolled it out a couple of weeks ago, MIT is the home of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium. And what they're going to do is -- we have a program called Spheres -- you know, spheres? There are three of these balls that are flying around inside the International Space Station autonomously. They are little satellites.

And since 2006, first one then two and now three of them, they kind of fly around, and they keep track of each other. And they fly in formation with each other. They're programmed to do relative position keeping and all kinds of stuff. And it's been managed by graduate and post-docs at MIT for a number of years.

Massachusetts is going to make that available for middle-school students beginning this summer where they will be taught to write programs for these spheres to fly around inside the International Space Station.

There's a program -- it's not a NASA program -- called First Robotics. I'm not sure how many of you have heard about it, but it is absolutely incredible. I've become a big fan because NASA sponsors more teams across the -- throughout the world than any other organization, whether it's industry, academia or federal agencies. We sponsor 312 teams across the world.

And I went to Atlanta several weeks back for the international finals for the First Robotics, and it was incredible to watch kids from elementary school all the way through college who were out there building these robots and operating them. And they learned to help each other.

Community outreach and partnership is as important as the science. And you talk to the kids, you can see one team in the pits with their opponents helping them to prepare their robot. And, you know, you ask them why are you doing that, and they said, look, I know my robot is better, but I want to prove it on the field of battle. I don't want to win it in the pits.

And so they will help each other make sure that the robots show up on the field of play so that they can win. They're very competitive, but they want to win on the field.

I hope I answered your question -- a long answer to a short question.

Was there a question over here? Yes?

QUESTIONER: I will not be as eloquent as the young gentleman over there, but my name is (Questioner's name deleted). I'm actually a law student. So I may be a little older than some of the sons and daughters.

But nonetheless, I'm a proponent of technological advancement and exploration, but when we have so many problems at home -- debt crisis, unemployment, natural and manmade disaster, the oil spill that's ongoing -- how does the country justify spending so much money on NASA -- tax dollars? Again, you know, not necessarily expressing my view but just a curiosity.

BOLDEN: Great question, and it's -- I think what we try to do is, daily, show you what you get for the investment.

For example, the day that the earthquake struck Haiti, NASA had overhead assets. We had orbiting earth-science satellites that were able downlink data immediately to the first responders and the rescue workers.

We identified three landslides west of Port-au-Prince that probably would have taken weeks to find. And it was on overhead imagery from NASA/NOAA satellites.

The oil spill in the Gulf, we've been characterizing the size and the flow of the oil spill, again, with satellites like Terra and Aqua. They're NASA satellites that we use to study the oceans and to study Earth and the like.

As Dr. Cicerone said, when you look at something like a synthetic aperture radar, SAR radar can actually look beneath the surface of earth by several feet. It can look under the surface of the ocean so, again, you know, as you've heard people say, although the oil spill looks bad on the surface, it's what's underneath that hasn't bubbled up yet that is really going to be the nightmare. And we're able to see some of that, able to image some of that with NASA imagery.

What do we do with human space flight? Why do we fly humans in space? In trying to make it possible for astronauts to survive the harsh environment of space, to go to the moon, for example, as we did in the Apollo era, you get things like magnetic resonance imaging. You get things like an ambulance today, where the EMT, you know, puts a sensor on you -- no wires, no nothing -- when you get to the hospital to the emergency room, the doctor has -- the emergency room physician has all your vital signs, has managed to follow you from the time you got in the ambulance and wired up until the time you are rolled out and put on the table in the emergency room. And that's because it's using the technology that we had to develop to keep track of the vital signs of an Apollo astronaut who was going to walk on the surface of the moon where you couldn't lay any wires or anything.

We have recently entered into a memorandum of agreement with the National Institutes of Health, and they're actually putting money into grants for studies that have nothing to do with space flight. What they have specified is they want researchers who want to do things to make life better and healthier here on earth, but they think that they may be able to enhance the study of whatever it is -- whether it's an illness or a disease or something -- if they can look at it in the microgravity environment of space, because space does a number of things.

It takes gravity out of the equation. And so you see that things like very rare drugs, pharmaceuticals and the like, tend to grow the natural way. Crystals will align themselves in their natural patterns and everything so that they become almost perfect.

And so scientists and engineers can -- biomedical engineers -- can go, when we get material back, and they can look at things like protein crystal growth experiments and determine if you're looking at something like, say, AIDS. You get a much better understanding of how the virus is working.

Salmonella, we discovered what we think may be a drug to combat salmonella, discovered purely serendipitously on a shuttle mission where we were just -- we wanted to study -- or some scientists from, I think, the University of Arizona and Baylor and other places wanted to look at real viral or (virile ?) strains of bacteria.

And they found that, when they were taken away from the gravity environment, they became -- I mean, wild. Much worse. But what they found was, when they took those strains, they could pick out specific genes or whatever you want that had salmonella and helped us to understand the disease. And so now, they actually think that they can develop a vaccine against salmonella, and they're about to go into human trials.

But that's as a result of several shuttle flights and now some time on the International Space Station. So, you know, my response would be we don't spend a dime in space. It all gets spent down here on Earth in preparing for a mission to go that brings us information that makes life better for everybody down here.

QUESTIONER: Sorry I'm not in the right age group.

BOLDEN: Any age group is the right age group.

QUESTIONER: (Laughs.) George Friedman in his book, "The Next 100 Years," disposes of the whole question of peak oil, carbon pollution, energy security, et cetera, by saying, oh, well, in the 21st century, the United States will have space-based solar collection that will provide all the power we need.

And it seems quite wild for this sort of thoughtful fellow to then just dispose of this question. But so are you doing about that?

BOLDEN: We're trying. We're not there. I mean, you know, there are a lot of ideas about space-based lasers that can beam energy back to Earth. We actually are -- we're doing competitions. We have X PRIZEs, and we have -- what's the challenge -- Millennium Challenge and this challenge and a lot of different challenges trying to see -- bring people from academia and industry and just, you know, like (Questioner's name deleted), who says I think I want to compete here, and I think I can invent something that really is going to do away with the need for hydrocarbons and oil and fossil fuels because we're going to get all the energy we need; we're going to put solar collectors on the surface of the moon, and then we're going it beam to down to Earth with lasers.

That may very well happen, and we're doing everything we can to facilitate the success of people who think they have, you know, they espouse these theories, and they want to try it.

So we're open to any and everything. We have got to find more efficient, effective ways to move around in space. So when the president told me to go off and look at new technology for a heavy-lift launch vehicle that's going to allow us to go into deep space, look at new propulsion systems -- I've talked to everybody -- not everybody -- I've talked to a lot of people around the world. I'm not finding anybody who encourages me that we're going to find a way to leave the planet that's revolutionary.

Most people are convinced that chemical rockets, because we're not going to -- we're not -- we, in the United States -- are never going to agree to allow nuclear rockets to launch things from Earth.

Now, once you get in space, you know, if we can convince people that we can contain it and not put masses of people in jeopardy, nuclear propulsion for in-space propulsion -- you don't want to have to take eight months to go from Earth orbit to Mars because that's exposure all the way to the harshest environment that we know in terms of radiation.

We don't understand it very well. So if President Obama were to give me an unlimited budget today, I could not put Sam on a rocket and send him to Mars. Or I couldn't put anybody else back there on a rocket and send them to Mars because I couldn't ethically expose them to the harsh radiation environment that I know they're going to experience.

So we've got to come up with ways to solve the radiation challenge. Speed is one of them. You know, if I can dash from Earth to Mars in three months instead of eight, that's a significant reduction in the exposure, and it may be that a three-month dash to Mars is no worse than a six-month stay on the International Space Station.

You know, we've had people living and working on the International Space Station in six-month increments now. Sergei Krikalev, who was one of my crewmates on my last shuttle mission, has lived in space for more than two years. And we measure everything about him, and we know that living in space for that period of time with his exposure to the radiation that you get out there has not been detrimental to his health.

If we can determine that a three-month sprint to Mars is no worse than six months or two years living in space on the International Space Station, problem solved. You know?

Some biomedical engineer may design some drug that you take as a prophylactic that changes the way that, you know, that our organs respond to being bombarded by gamma rays and alpha particles and all this kind of stuff. Nobody's done it yet, but there are people who theorize that we can offer some prophylactic medicine that will allow the body to, yeah, be bombarded by radiation but heal itself almost instantly once it gets hit.

QUESTIONER: I am the right age. (Laughs.) I'm her guest.

My name is (Questioner's name deleted), and I'm at Cornell University.

I was recently reading a Thomas Friedman article about the intel science fair this year, and he was just sort of commenting on how so many of the top kids and winners were Asian immigrants or kids that were immigrants -- Asian or Indian.

And I was wondering how that trend -- demographic trend and trend within science -- affects your approach to education and your approach to these countries that might be experiencing some kind of a brain-drain with their own technological --

BOLDEN: It's actually what forms our approach to education because what we see is, while we had this huge influx of Asians, Indians, people from other countries, after 9/11, it became significantly difficult, one, for them to get into the United States but also to stay here.

And so what a lot of them are starting to do today is they're going back home. You know, especially Indians. They're saying, why should I go through this hassle? You know, yeah, I'm making a lot of money here in the United States, but I can go back to my own country and I can really make a difference. And the amount of money I make, I can live comfortably and I can help raise the status of my country technologically. And that's exactly what's happening.

So we have got to provide -- we can no longer depend on people from other countries to be our technological workforce. We are going to have to create our own.

You know, we have lived like this for decades now, but they're starting to go home. We're starting to drive some of them home.

But the lesson for us is we need to make sure that American kids, boys and girls, understand, like (Questioner's name deleted) does, that science can be fun and engineering can be fun and that you can make a difference with that. Medicine can be fun.

And so that's what drives us to think that we've got to find ways to help entice youngsters -- I'd like to go down to third grade if I could because, in the minority communities, in black communities and Hispanic communities, if I can't get a young man through third grade, he's gone.

They're cute when they're in first and second grade. When they get to be third graders, the research says they're no longer cute. When they ask challenging questions of a teacher, they're a trouble maker, they have a learning disorder or something. They're something wrong with them because they're just -- they're making the teacher's life miserable.

And so they're shunned or ostracized, and so we've got to find a way to get young African-American and Hispanic kids through the third, fourth grade hump, and then we can work with them. But we can't -- I mean, we can't continue to lose kids at the rate that we're losing them in elementary school now.

CICERONE: I think (Questioner's name deleted) had a question, and then we'll go --

QUESTIONER: I'm (Questioner's name deleted)'s dad. Let me ask a public policy question. I run the Middle East program at CSIS, and one of the things that I look at when we look at U.S. police policy --

BOLDEN: Used to be --

QUESTIONER: Huh?

BOLDEN: Kurt Campbell used to be --

QUESTIONER: Kurt used to work --

BOLDEN: -- one of my mentors.

QUESTIONER: Yeah. Everybody works for Kurt.

BOLDEN: I used to work for him.

QUESTIONER: We all did. (Laughter.)

It's a question of priorities. This is the problem we have with U.S.-Middle East policy is what's the most important thing. When I was growing up, getting a man on the moon, it's a bumper sticker, the most important thing.

When you were talking about looking at education, looking at manned flight to Mars, looking at -- my sense is that you must have core priorities. What's really at the core, which I think helps address her question, of how do we afford it? What's the core?

BOLDEN: Well, you're probably not going to like my answer. The core for me is actually education. Unless we can educate our kids, I am not going to have a workforce. And I know that doesn't sit well with a lot of my -- some of my predecessors and some of the people in NASA right now because they think we may be putting too much emphasis on education.

But it is the core issue for us as a nation. It's really important, though, going back to what Dr. Cicerone asked at the very outset, if we want to maintain our leadership in the world, our technological leadership, then we have got to be risk takers, and we have got to feel that it's really important to go beyond lower-earth orbit.

Because if we don't, then our partners will find somebody who wants to do that. And because it's in our genes. It's in the human -- it's in the DNA of the human species.

I don't care what culture you look at, they all -- many are nomadic. You know, they're roaming because they want to see what's across that sand dune or whatever it is. I don't know a culture that's happy just kind of staying in place.

I don't know every culture in the world, but most of them are inquisitive. They want to know what's better. And if we're not the leader, then we're either going to be following or we're going to be watching from the sidelines.

So while education is critical, we have got to be exploring, which means we've got to be building something that will take us beyond lower-earth orbit. And that's why the president said we need to -- you know, we need a vehicle in which humans can fly beyond lower-earth orbit, and we need a heavy-lift launch vehicle that can get them and scientific payloads there.

You know, lacking that, we're going to fall behind. I think he gets it. I'm not sure a lot of other people do.

Yes?

CICERONE: This young woman?

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is (Questioner's name deleted). I'm a senior at the Rice (ph) School.

You mentioned there are no dumb questions, so in the NASA spirit, I'm going to go ahead and take a risk with this one. (Laughter.)

First off, the first part of my question is: How far have we travelled in space? And that can mean satellites or anything. How far have we traveled?

And secondly, I'm not trying to be a pessimist, but the sun is going to explode. It is a star. The Earth is not going to last forever. Hopefully, we'll get past global warming, but how -- well, my question is: Is it possible in the next couple of years for humans to actually live on a space station and survive? Will we ever reach that point?

BOLDEN: We have actually left the solar system. So we have traveled beyond the solar system, I know at least one spacecraft, and there may be a couple.

Sam, help me. Viking? Voyager has made it. How about -- do we have a Viking spacecraft that's made it out of the solar system yet? I don't know. Voyager has. So we have left the solar system.

Humans can live for long periods of time in space, and one of the reasons -- I am not a fatalist, so I don't think, you know, that, in our lifetime, we're going to need to be able to go to another planet or some other place because Earth becomes uninhabitable.

That may very well happen in time because we don't control everything. I believe that there is a supreme being, you know, that has a plan for something. And it may not be that Earth is going to be here forever. You know, it may not be.

But I think we need to go to other planets and find ways for humans to live and work in space for long, long periods of time, again, because the way our solar system is, there are other planets that hold great hope of understanding the planet that we call home.

You know, Mars, at one time, we think, was a warm, wet planet. Earth has gone through a number of cycles. You know, the dinosaurs were here when Earth was warm, wet, and then it froze. Not unlike Mars, as a matter of fact, if you think about it.

There may be some dormant species under the ice on Mars like brine shrimp or -- what are the other things we had at Miramar that lay dormant for a hundred years until you add water to them and, you know, and then they come to life. There are living species that can lie dormant for tens or hundreds of years and then they come to life when they get water.

We may get to Mars and -- you ever heard of terraforming? I'm not sure I believe it, but there are people who theorize that, if you just put enough heat into the surface of Mars -- and they've run analogs down in Antarctica. If you just put enough heat into the surface of Mars, it will gradually begin to thaw out and, in a generation, it may return to its original form. I don't know whether that's true or not, but it's worth it to try it.

And we may find that there is some dormant species under the ice on Mars, you know, that God put there but it just got trapped.

Yes? And that was not a dumb question, by the way, keeping in line with my there are no dumb questions.

Did you ask a third piece to that?

QUESTIONER: I was going to and then I stopped.

BOLDEN: Well, go ahead because we're going to get the question right here. What was the third part to yours?

QUESTIONER: Well, I was wondering about any sort of extraterrestrial life.

BOLDEN: Oh, I wish I had evidence. I am a believer, like many of my fellow space travelers. A lot of us, for different reasons -- it's because of my faith that I believe that there are other forms of life in the universe.

You know, the universe is a big place. I'm a practicing Christian, so in my faith, I learn about omnipotent, omnipresent God, which means he's everywhere. He's all-knowing. He does everything.

And I just cannot bring my little pea brain to believe that a God like that would pick one planet of one of millions of suns and say that's the only place in the vast universe that I'm going to put any kind of life. And so the problem is I haven't been far enough away.

You know, 250 miles -- 400 miles away from Earth where we went when we deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, that's nowhere. I mean, that's really nowhere. The sun is 93 million miles -- just to go to the moon is a quarter of a million miles.

So we are nowhere in lower-earth orbit. And that's the big reason that we need to get out of lower-earth orbit. Lower-earth orbit is a lot of fun, but you're nowhere in relative terms if you want to go and try to explore the universe.

You had a question?

QUESTIONER: I heard that someone was thinking about putting trash into space instead of making landfills. Would that affect, like, NASA programs? Or what do you think about that?

BOLDEN: A couple of things you can do. When the Russians bring stuff back from the International Space Station, they put it in a vehicle called Progress. Progress is a freighter. You know, it takes stuff up to the space station. We unload it, and then they pack trash in and when Progress comes back, it disintegrates. It just burns up on reentry and it falls into the ocean. That's not a great way to, you know, to get rid of stuff, but it works for them. I don't recommend it. (Laughter.)

There are other things we can do, though. I have a friend by the name much Franklin Chang-Diaz. Dr. Franklin Chang-Diaz is developing what's called a VASIMR Rocket. It's an ion engine, very gentle impulse that just pushes you forever, constantly accelerating.

And this, theoretically, is something that would enable us to go from Earth to Mars in a matter of sometime significantly less than it takes us now. It also has the power to boost the International Space Station to a higher orbit if we wanted to.

You can do two things to things you want to take out of space. You can deorbit them and bring them back down through the atmosphere where they break up and cause lots of debris and fall into the ocean and cause pollution and all that kind of stuff, or you can raise them to higher orbits where they go up there and they'll stay for -- in our lifetime -- forever.

You know, you put something up in geosynchronous orbit, for example, or put it in a libration point where it just kind of hovers, theoretically, you know, we never have to worry about it. So there are two different ways to get stuff out of orbit that we want to get out of orbit, to get rid of things like nuclear waste.

I know. Put it at a libration point. You know?

CICERONE: One more. One more comment or question.

Yes, this young woman here?

QUESTIONER: Hi. My name is (Questioner's name deleted). I'm from Georgetown University.

I'm a Chinese, and I just finished my master's degree here. You were talking about NASA's corporation with China, and my question is -- well, when you talk about that, it reminds me that people are saying that when the U.S. was sending all the manufacturing jobs to China and Chinese sending their smartest kids to the U.S. to work here.

So I think there is a balance here. (Laughter.)

Well, my question is: Where is the biggest pressure when it comes to the cooperation between NASA and the Chinese?

BOLDEN: The biggest pressure against it?

QUESTIONER: The biggest pressure what?

BOLDEN: The biggest pressure that tries to stifle --

QUESTIONER: Exactly, yeah. Is it coming from -- is it from your heart, or is it --

BOLDEN: Oh, you mean me personally?

QUESTIONER: Yeah.

BOLDEN: You don't have any resistance from me.

QUESTIONER: No, not only from that --

BOLDEN: I have to say that very carefully. O'B is frowning in the back. He's going, oh, don't say that. (Laughter.)

I have a hard time when I go to the Hill because we have -- and it's to be expected. There are some members of Congress who really think there is no way in the world, ever, that we should -- that's a partnership that we should strike.

I just happen to disagree, respectfully disagree. You know, I am -- when I flew my -- I was selected to fly my last mission in the space shuttle in 1993. I was here in Washington serving as the deputy assistant administrator, and I was told, okay, we want you to go back to Houston and fly one more time. And I said, hurt me. (Laughter.)

And they said, however, you're going to have two Russian cosmonauts that you're going to fly with. I said, forget it. I have no desire whatsoever to fly with any Russian. I said, you know, I have spent all my life training to kill them, and they have spent all their life training to kill me. And I'm just not interested.

And one of my mentors, George Abbey, who, you know, at the time was up here, he said, look, why don't you just calm down. He said, before you decide that you don't want to fly with these guys, why don't you meet them and at least have dinner.

And so Sergei Krikalev and Vladimir Titov arrived in Washington, D.C. We went to dinner. We struck up a conversation. Sergei had a 3-year-old daughter, Olga. Vladimir had two kids. Yuri was 8. Irina was about to be 16. We started talking about our kids, our goals in life, our aspirations, how we wanted to make the world better for them.

Yang Liwei, the first Chinese astronaut to fly when I met him shortly after he came back, I was in Beijing, and we were preparing to address the International Conference of Young Astronauts in Beijing. And I didn't speak any Chinese, he didn't speak any English, but we got together with an interpreter, and the conversation almost immediately went to our kids and, you know, things that we thought we wanted for them.

That's why I think it's important.

CICERONE: And that will close the evening. Thank you. (Applause.)

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