The Path to Mars

Thursday, November 12, 2015
Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters
Charles F. Bolden Jr.

Administrator, National Aeronautics and Space Administration


Charles F. Bolden Jr., administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), joins Shirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, to discuss NASA's work in preparation for a human mission to Mars. Bolden addresses ongoing efforts in Mars exploration and U.S. leadership in international space exploration. Over the course of the discussion, Bolden addresses the challenges of long-term human space travel, including the psychological problems inherent to in long-term human space travel. 

JACKSON: Well, good evening. And thank you, Nancy. Well, I’m delighted to join the young leaders of the Kellen Term Member Program this evening, and especially delighted to be here with Major General Charles F. Bolden, Jr., the 12th administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, NASA.

Now, at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, we think so highly of General Bolden that in 2008 we awarded him an honorary doctor of engineering degree. And just last month, we invited him back to Rensselear, and he came, for reunion and homecoming weekend for a very lively panel discussion, in which I moderated, with Commander Reid Wiseman, of the Rensselear class of 1997, who had recently returned from spending 165 days on the International Space Station. Now, Commander Wiseman served on Expedition 4041 of the International Space Station.

And he is one of a number of distinguished astronauts that we’ve educated at Rensselear. You know, I’m a university president. I have to say that. (Laughter.) Along with other important contributors to space exploration that include scientists, engineers, and NASA leaders. Chief among them was George M. Low of the Rensselear classes of 1948 and ’50. And that is because he helped to envision and to plan NASA. He persuaded President John F. Kennedy in 1961 that a human mission to the moon could be accomplished within the ensuing decade. He took over as manager of the Apollo Spacecraft Program after a deadly fire in the Apollo 1 capsule during a training mission, overseeing a redesign of the capsule and then the successful Moon landing on July 20th, 1969, with Apollo 11. And then he served as the 14th president of Rensselear Polytechnic Institute.

But now we look beyond the Moon to Mars. There already have been, as you know, and are, robotic missions to Mars. Today, with General Bolden leading NASA, we anticipate a human mission to Mars, and many other exciting missions and scientific and technological breakthroughs along the way, including a mission to capture an asteroid boulder and to redirect it to a stable orbit around the Moon for study. Now, during his recent visit to Rensselear, General Bolden graciously made time for conversation with our students. You’ll see just how delightful and insightful he is. Many of them were so inspired by his vision for the future that they themselves, either directly or through their research or their work in engineering also want to be on a journey to Mars. And so I warn the Term Members here this evening, that you may find yourselves similarly captivated, and perhaps redirected.

But let me tell you just a bit about General Bolden’s distinguished career. Now, he and I have known each other for a while, so I’ll start calling him Charlie eventually. I sometimes refer to him as Administrator Bolden, but that’s a long phrase. So General Charles F. Bolden, Jr. is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant when he graduated in 1968 in the Marine Corps. And after completing flight training in 1970, he became a naval aviator. And he actually flew more than 100 combat missions during the Vietnam War. He completed a Master of Science degree in systems management from the University of Southern California, and was then assigned to the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School, testing a variety of ground attack aircraft, until his selection as an astronaut candidate in 1980.

Now, he traveled to orbit four times aboard space shuttle orbiters, commanding two missions and piloting two others. And after his final shuttle flight in 1994, he left NASA to return to active duty with the Marine Corps. He was promoted to major general in 1998 and retired from the Marine Corps in 2003. His many military declarations include the Defense Superior Service Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross. And General Bolden began his service as the head of NASA 40 years after the Moon landing, in July of 2009, where he is overseeing an exhilarating new era of space exploration, scientific research, and space and aeronautics technology development, as well as, importantly, international cooperation in service of humanity’s most audacious goals.

A series of surprising and inspiring scientific results are emerging from the Bolden epic, including the recent discovery of liquid water on present-day Mars, making present-day life on Mars a possibility, as well as images of Pluto being sent back by the new horizon spacecraft, that suggest complexities never expected, including changing weather, ice volcanoes, and even something akin to our own hydrological cycle. Plans for the future promise even more exciting innovations and discoveries.

Now, before General Bolden joins us, we have a video that will help you to appreciate some of the remarkable accomplishments of NASA under his leadership. And so please enjoy that video, and then immediately thereafter the next voice you hear will be that of Administrator Bolden. And after he finishes, then he and I will have a chat, and a chat with you. Thank you very much. (Applause.)

(Video plays.)

OBAMA: Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you so much.


OBAMA: Today I’d like to talk about the next chapter in this story. We will increase earth-based observation. And we will extend the life of the International Space Station. We will build on the good work already done on the Orion crew capsule. We will increase right away in other ground-breaking technologies. We want to lead into the future by investing in ground-breaking research and innovative companies. We’re going to modernize the Kennedy Space Center, creating jobs as we upgrade launch facilities. We will partner with industry. We will invest in cutting-edge research and technology. The space program has fueled jobs and entire industries. And in fulfilling this task, we will not only extend humanity’s reach into space, we will strengthen America’s leadership here on Earth.

(Video ends.)


BOLDEN: Thank you all very much. I was delinquent coming up because that’s the first time I’ve seen that. (Laughter.) So it caught me by surprise. Dr. Jackson, thanks very much for the—for the incredible introduction. And thanks to the Council for allowing me to come and spend some time with you all tonight. It’s actually my first time speaking to the Council here in New York, but I’ve been with the Council in D.C. twice now. And I always have a good time when I come to this group.

So I wish I could tell you—I won’t, because Dr. Jackson would really get angry—but normally I tell my crowds there are two rules: Ask questions anytime you want to—because my mom taught me how to read a script and, you know, put my finger where I was and answer the question and then come back. But don’t ask questions anytime you want to, hold them. The second rule would have been, there are no dumb questions. So remember rule number two when we get to the sitting up here. There are no dumb questions. If you’re thinking about it, somebody else out there in the audience is also thinking about it.

You know, it’s—this is incredible, to stand up here, because—OK, who’s here from the D.C. Council? Wow. You all weren’t there when I spoke in D.C. (Laughter.) It was a pretty gray-haired group. (Laughter.) This is—I got to ask the question, is this just set aside for 30-somethings, or?

Q: (Off mic.)

BOLDEN: That’s right. (Laughter.) So you planned it that way. How old are you? What’s your name? (Laughter.)

Q: Max.

BOLDEN: Max? All right, Max, I have three granddaughters. I’m not looking for anybody for them, not just yet, but they’re nine, brand-new—I now have two teenagers. One just turned 13 on the Marine Corps birthday, on the 10th of November. And the other one is—ah, I just heard somebody sing my song.

How many veterans in the audience? Thank you all very much for your service. (Applause.) Hopefully everyone took a moment yesterday sometime during the day to stop and really reflect on what the day is all about. It’s not just about a day off, if you happen to work for the government. It actually is commemorate and celebrate people who have done some absolutely incredible things. And it’s actually not just in the U.S. Countries all around the world celebrate it in some way. And they just call it different things. How many Marines in the house? Semper Fi, happy birthday two days late, but it’s our birthday all week. (Laughter.) It’s our birthday all month. Actually, but thanks for your service.

What was your MOS?

Q: 5803, military police.

BOLDEN: Military police.

Q: 2674, Spanish and cryptology.

BOLDEN: You’re a cryptologist? You know what that means? He can’t tell you anything he did. (Laughter.) Because if he does, he’ll probably have to bring somebody in to shoot you. (Laughter.) Fantastic. Thanks to—only two Marines here. I thought I heard somebody back there. What did you do?

Q: (Off mic.) I’m a test pilot. You know that.

BOLDEN: OK, what are you doing out there?

Q: Listening to you, sir. (Laughter.)

BOLDEN: I cannot believe it. Ms.—Ms.—captain now, right?

Q: Major.

BOLDEN: Major. Oh, majored you. Oh, I can’t believe this. All right.

You know, I was really, really, really pleased to learn that the Council is making an effort to reach Term Members who come from an accomplished group of dynamic young professionals drawn from diverse fields. I think that’s really, really, really special. So that’s why I say it’s really special to look out on this group. And there’s hope, to be quite honest. Those of you in the group, you know, you all are very much like an organization called the Space Generation Advisory Council.

Now, there’s got to be at least some of you out there. Who knows about the Space Generation Advisory Council? Anybody a member? No one? Look it up. Think about it. They’ll be meeting in Guadalajara, Mexico next Septemberish-October, and then the year after that in Adelaide, Australia. I try to go meet with them every year. (Laughter.) And they’re an awesome group. Requirement—or a limitation on membership is when you turn 35 you’re out. You are no longer allowed to be a member.

But the Council is a group of young professionals between the ages of 18 and 35 from more than a hundred countries who work in support of the United Nations program on space applications. It’s a non-governmental organization and a professional network that, in their own words, aims to bring the views of students and young space professionals to the United Nations, space industry, and other organizations. One of my great joys as the NASA administrator is getting a chance to meeting with young people all over the world. And while it may not feel like it, you can take it from me, because—I won’t tell you how old I am but I’ll hint—being any age less than 70 is young in my book. I’m 69, so that’s all right. (Laughter.)

As we get started, I wanted to share a couple of quotes. And here’s the first one, and I quote, “The first day or two up there,”—and by up there the speaker means up in space. “By the first day or two up there, you try to recognize the countries.” Then the speaker names his own country and he says, and I continue, “It stands out, it’s very, very distinct. Then you keep missing the countries and you look only at the continents. By the sixth day, the whole word becomes a beautiful blue and white and yellow painting. Those boundaries really disappear. With me, they still are.” Second quote, “There’s no better place to emphasize the unity of people in the world than flying in space. We are all the same people. We are all human beings. And I believe that most of us, almost all of us, are good people,” unquote.

The first quote was from Prince Sultan Salman Abdulaziz Al Saud, of Saudi Arabia after flying as a member of the STS-51-G shuttle mission in June of 1985. The second, by the late Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, during his ill-fated STS_107 mission in January of 2003. I thought a lot about both these quotes while I was in Jerusalem last month for the 66th International Astronautical Congress. I don’t have to remind anyone in the Council on Foreign Relations that these are pretty challenging times in that part of the world. Yet, there we were, from all over the world, an international community gathered in this place or that place to talk about our shared destinies.

One of the highlights of my trip was the opportunity to meet with the members of the Space Generation Advisory Council that I mentioned earlier. Having been blessed to see our planet from space, I can attest that from up there you don’t see borders. You see a place seemingly at peace, in tranquility, and one beautiful planet. If you look really, really, really close you can see this little sign. And it has something on it that says: Help wanted. (Laughter.) No, not really, I’m just kidding. But seriously, I came here tonight to tell you that our planet needs you. We need your leadership. We need your ingenuity. We need your imagination.

For those of you still in your 30s or younger, you’re in that sweet spot in your life where on one hand you’re old enough to be role models and mentors, yet on the other hand you’re still young enough that your professional and civic lives are really just beginning and you are more likely to be forgiven for your errors and inactions than later in life. You’re no longer a captain. Welcome to adulthood. The Marines understand that. Every officer in the Marine Corps wants to be a captain. That’s the rank you want to attain. If you’re enlisted you want to be a gunnery sergeant. And then all of a sudden you get there, and you find out that there is life after that. Except the bad part about life after that is people expect a lot more of you and they hold you responsible for things you do. So it’s just interesting that way.

You know, some of you may be parents already. Others might have younger siblings. Many of you likely supervise interns or younger staff. Perhaps you might also volunteer to be a big sister or a big brother. You may conduct alumni interviews for your alma mater. You may be coaching youth soccer or a little league team, and so forth. In many ways, your future lives and careers will be defined by how we respond to the question of how we as one planet can come together to tackle some of the greatest challenges of all times. I’m here this evening to tell you that I believe space exploration is one of the most important tools your generation will use to bring about a better future that you deserve, a more peaceful future, a greener future.

Yours will be a future where human beings, as President Obama has said, have pushed farther into the universe, not just to visit, but also to stay. To me, public diplomacy and cooperation in space go together like peanut butter and jelly. I use that because my granddaughters love peanut butter and jelly. They just belong together. As administrator of NASA, I often meet with the heads of other space agencies across the globe. And they frequently tell me that they’re looking to the United States and will follow our lead. In fact, Jean-Jacques Dordain, the recently retired head of the European Space Agency, at our last heads of agency meeting just before we went to Jerusalem, Jean-Jacques—as I usually do, since the U.S. is kind of the understood leader of the heads of agency for the International Space Station.

And every time we meet I always ask them, OK, what do you want to do? You know, what do you want to do in the future? And we always kind of muddle through it. And I said it this time and almost to a person the head of the Russian space agency, head of European Space Agency, head of Japanese space agency, Canadian Space Agency—they all said: We’re going where you go. And then Jean-Jacques pulled me aside afterwards. He said, let me tell you something. He said, I hate to break it to you, everybody’s looking to you.

Everybody’s looking to the United States. You all have a moral obligation to lead. You don’t have a choice. You can’t back down. You can’t back off. We’re going to go where you go. And we’re really counting on you to always be out front and taking us to places that everybody else dreams of going. So as you all begin to move into leadership positions in the various places that you are, particularly if you go into the international arena, as I know some of you already are, people look to you for your guidance and your input and your ideas. Just tough it out. You know, you’re from the U.S., and everybody expects us to lead.

All told, at NASA, we have roughly 700 active agreements with more than 120 international partners today. While the purpose of all these things is scientific and technological, it’s not lost on me that, like so many things when it comes to space, there’s also spin-off benefit. Folks across the world are reminded that we Americans are a generous, compassionate, innovative, and peaceful people. When I was the age of many of you, and I was at one time, much was made about the fact that our country was in a space race with the Soviet Union.

Today, a child who is 15 or younger, which includes you, has lived every single day of his or her life while human beings from multiple countries are living and working together in space, aboard the International Space Station—for the last 15 years. Not one single day, not one single second when human beings have not been living and working together aboard the International Space Station. I have always maintained that the space station ought to be considered for a Nobel Peace Prize. And I don’t say that, you know, frivolously.

This about this: Tens of thousands of people from across 15 countries have been involved in its construction and operations, all working toward common goals of discovery, understanding, and human progress. The future of space exploration will create some remarkable opportunities for your generation. In fact, it already has. And these opportunities can be summarized in one word: Mars. Let me explain why I say that. Our story actually begins with President Dwight David Eisenhower. You see, presidents since Eisenhower have all floated the idea of going to Mars.

But about 12 years ago, we had a horrible, horrible setback. On February 1st, 2003, we lost the Space Shuttle Columbia and her seven-person crew. After giving things a long, hard look, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board made the recommendation that the Space Shuttle Program should be phased out. The shuttle had already had a remarkable three-decades-long run like no other. I traveled to space four times on the shuttle. And I can tell you that I loved that spacecraft. But every technology evolves over time. And although this was a decision to which I did not arrive lightly, I agreed with their recommendation, as did many in the space community at the time.

President George W. Bush agreed as well. And he made what I believe was the right decision to direct the phase-out of the Space Shuttle Program. Fast forward a few years to the winter of 2009, and you just saw some of it. Upon taking office, President Obama asked an independent committee chaired by former Lockheed Chairman—CEO Norm Augustine to review the nation’s plans for human spaceflight. The committee included astronauts, scientists, executives, educators, engineers, a retired Air Force general, people as distinguished as the late Sally Ride.

Their findings, quite frankly, were sobering. I quote, “The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory,” unquote. A few months after the report’s release in April of 2010, President Obama came to Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center, and he delivered what I consider to be a major space policy address. And you saw the highlights of it in the clip. In it, he laid out a plan to replace this unsustainable trajectory with a clear, affordable, financially sustainable, and ambitious way forward—a way forward that expands our presence deeper into the universe while strengthening our nation’s leadership here at home.

The president called for expanding robotic exploration of the solar system. He asked NASA to move forward with the magnificent James Webb Space Telescope that will be sent a million miles from Earth. He ramped up NASA’s Earth science mission so that we can learn more about our own planet, including our climate—our changing climate. The centerpiece of the president’s plan was and is a journey to Mars that will culminate with sending American astronauts to an asteroid in the 2020s and the red planet in the 2030s.

To completely this journey, the president envisioned that NASA would continue to develop the spacecraft, rockets and other technologies that will bring American astronauts to deep space. As part of these efforts, we’d continue working with commercial and international partners on the technologies that drive exploration, and have a legacy of creating spin-off benefits here on Earth. And I’m referring to both economic benefits and benefits to our health and quality of life. At the same time, we would extend the life of the International Space Station in low-Earth orbit, to at least 2024. To replace the space shuttle, we’d work with American commercial partners to send cargo and crew to the International Space Station, thus helping facilitate a robust commercial space market and a dependable commercial launch system.

Five years after the president challenged NASA to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, we’re closer to sending human beings to the red planet than ever before in human history. Meanwhile, a new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around NASA’s road map and time table for making this happen. When the president laid out his plan in 2010, he stood in front of the Orion Spacecraft, the technological foundation for future deep space missions. Today Orion has flown farther into space than any spacecraft built for human passengers has flown in more than four decades.

The space launch system, or SLS, rocket that will somebody propel American astronauts to deep space has moved from concept to development, and it’s hitting critical milestones in its construction and assembly. After pledging to extend the life of the International Space Station for five years back then, the president has now extended it for 10, to at least 2024. American Astronaut Scott Kelly is halfway through his year in space. And we’ll be able to study the effects of such long duration missions, and to benchmark them with his twin brother Marc, who is here back home on Earth.

We’ve recently announced exciting discoveries about flowing water on Mars, and the fate of much of the Martian atmosphere. As all this is going on, our American industry partners are now launching cargo missions to the international space station. And they’re doing it from U.S. soil. I’m optimistic we’re on a pace to launch our first commercial crew flights from American soil in just a couple of years. I should note that there are 350 companies working across 35 states today toward the goal of bringing these launches home.

So there’s a lot at stake, not only in terms of discovery and exploration, but also in terms of job creation, growth and opportunity. Meanwhile, every single day Americans are going to work in good jobs at businesses that are partnering with NASA to develop the technologies that drive exploration. Perhaps most importantly, our journey is starting to capture the public’s hearts and minds and imagination. You’re smiling. You’re happy, I hope. (Laughter.) OK. There’s a tangible sense that I get as I travel and meet folks at NASA that is we’re now in vogue again. The coolness factor is what inspires young kids to want to study science and write a science fiction story. And all these things make a difference.

With all this said, some of you—I hope it’s just a few—might be asking, OK, but what does all this stuff matter? Why should we go to Mars? This brings me, brings us, the audience participation part of our program. When I point to you in the audience, I want you to repeat after me, OK? So when I point to you, I want you to just yell out at the top of your lungs: Mars matters! Got it? OK, let’s practice. When I point to you, you just say Mars matters? Ready? Mars matters.

AUDIENCE: Mars matters.

BOLDEN: That’s OK. (Laughter.) Because its formulation and evolution are comparable to Earth’s, Mars matters.

AUDIENCE: Mars matters.

BOLDEN: Because we know that at one time it had conditions suitable for life, Mars matters.

AUDIENCE: Mars matters.

BOLDEN: Because what we learn about the red planet may tell us more about our own home planet’s history and future, and because it might just help us unravel the age-old mystery about whether life exists beyond Earth, Mars matters.

AUDIENCE: Mars matters.

BOLDEN: You all were good. So—(applauds)—good job. (Laughter.)

When I think of the world in which our kids, my kids, my grandkids, will be raising their own children, I see a world where their kids view human beings living and working on Mars as a matter of—as just a fact of life, much as they view living and working on the International Space Station today—a future where NASA and the international partners are using Mars as a stepping stone to the rest of the solar system.

I see a future where robust private space industry is launching human beings, cargo, and satellites of all sizes to space at a significantly lower price point thanks to the work we’re doing today to make launches more affordable and to advance emerging small satellite technologies like CubeSats and NanoSats, a future where the next great American company utilizes technologies developed for space travel to develop a product that improves our quality of life here on Earth, a future where flying from Washington to Las Angeles is a better experience for people in the plane and on the ground, because we have succeeded in reimagining air traffic management and we’ve made flight cleaner, greener, safer, and quieter. By flight, I mean both airplanes and helicopters.

I see a future where our grandchildren’s children are drinking cleaner water, breathing clearer air, and making use of clearer energy, not only because NASA has helped us better understand climate change, but because of the work our scientists are doing in areas like green aviation and water purification. I see a future where fewer Americans are losing a sister or a son because the medical technologies we perfect to protect our astronauts from exposure to radiation on a long-duration spaceflight helps to revolutionize medicine, or because the technologies we’ve developed to detect signs of life on other planets continue to help emergency workers listen to beating hearts in the rubble after a disaster, as was done with a device called a finder in Nepal following last summer’s earthquake. Finder was a sensor developed by the Jet Propulsion Labs, NASA, out in Pasadena, California, that does just that. And it’s now applicable in commercial applications.

I see a world where girls and young people of color are more excited about pursuing education in science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math. A world where, unlike today, there will no longer be any states in the union where no women—no women—take the advanced placement, AP, computer science exam, as there are today, thanks in part to NASA’s work to promote stem education and careers. I see a future where people in even the most remote corners of the world have access to Wi-Fi, as do astronauts living and working in space today on the International Space Station. I see a future where maybe, just maybe, humanity finds the answer to the age-old question of whether we’re along in the universe. While none of us can know for sure what the future has in store, there’s one thing we can say with a good degree of certainty: None of these things can happen on their own. They’ll require future leaders to continue to make the choices that point us in the right direction, future presidents, future administrators, future citizens, you.

President Obama has set us on visionary course. It’s my sincere hope that future leaders from all sides of the political spectrum see it through, because I truly believe the sort of future I laid out is well within your grasp. As I close, I want to share with you a quote from a Department of State telegram written in July 1969. Quote, “The Russian press was surprisingly generous with its praise of the men behind Apollo 11 and American space research in general during the days that the historic Moon voyage was in progress. But now, they seem to fear that the landing may have increased respect for the Americans around the world,” unquote. It was the Cold War back then.

Another State Department telegram read, and I quote, “Five thousand Hungarians walked through the American embassy yesterday. They came to pay tribute to Apollo 13. They came in overalls spattered with paint, in smocks, in tie and suit, without shirts, old and bent, young and athletic, students, workers, old people,” unquote. It noted that even the secret police were cooperative and good natured. Indira Gandhi, then prime minister of India, declared that the Moon landing was one of the most exciting and significant moments in human history. The queen of England reportedly stayed up with her children to watch. The pope—not Pope Francis—(laughter)—but the pope spoke about humankind’s pursuit of a new destiny.

In New York City, people took to the streets to dance and to celebrate. The Houston Chronicle wrote, and I quote, “For a moment, it seemed that all men were brothers. Communist journalists congratulated American scientists. Israeli photographers beamed at Egyptian broadcasters. Brown hands grasped white ones and few eyes were dry. The word went out in 30 languages to 1,535 radio and television networks, to 1,056 newspapers, and to 445 magazines, in 57 countries.” We witnessed similar worldwide reactions on the evening that Curiosity touched down on Mars. After surviving its seven minutes of terror through the Martian atmospheric entry. And some of you who live here in New York may remember being in Times Square on that evening, when Times Square was packed as if it were New Year’s Eve, with people watching the reenactment of Curiosity landing on Mars on the big screen there in Times Square.

So as I get ready to sit down and talk with Dr. Jackson, I ask you, just think—just think for a moment what it will be like when you’re with your loved ones, and you’re with your kids, or you’re in the spacecraft, watching the first astronauts from Earth reach Mars. Thank you all very much. (Applause.)

JACKSON: So, General, Charlie, let’s set the stage a bit. As you alluded to in your remarks, it’s been nearly 43 years since the last time humans stepped onto the Moon. And many of us are eager for human exploration of the solar system. And so the NASA plan for a journey to Mars actually provides a road map of three phases of research and development—the so-called Earth-reliant phase, the proving ground phase, and the Earth-independent phase. So can you elaborate a bit on those steps that will get us to Mars in the 2030s? I know there’s scientific and technological research going on at the space station. The Orion crew there—spacecraft was alluded to. And then there’s this work on the space launch system. But maybe you can talk a little bit about those three phases.

BOLDEN: Let me try to walk through. And the very first one, the Earth reliant phase, is the—is the period in which we live today, and we have been for the last 40 years or so. We have been totally dependent on living in low-Earth orbit with a very new exceptions, the brief period of time that we ventured out to the Moon with six Apollo missions that put humans on the surface of the Moon. But we’ve been working in low-Earth orbit now very successfully, learning a lot. But we’re Earth-reliant. We don’t really know how to get away from here. We’re not comfortable with it.

The next phase, which actually if you want to talk about a timeframe will be in the decade of the 2020s, and that’s when we’re going to use the space launch system and Orion to migrate astronauts away from the International Space Station and low-Earth orbit, and begin to operate in what we call cislunar space. And cislunar space, just say around the Moon. So for about a 10-year period of time, we’re going to be in habitats and in spacecraft. Humans will orbit the Moon. And we’ll be doing more research on the human body to make sure that when we make the very serious commitment to say, OK, it’s time to go, and we launch humans the rest of the distance to Mars—which, today, is eight months; it’s not a trivial trip; it’s eight months one way—that we’ll be ready. There are also some technological challenges that we still have. So we’ll work on that while we’re in cislunar space.

The other thing that it does for the international community is everybody wants to go to Mars. Everybody wants to go with us. But there are—how many nations have sent somebody to the Moon? This is a trick—this is sort of a trick question. Let me ask you, here it is, how many missions actually put somebody on the surface of the Moon? Anybody remember? I told you earlier. Six. How many nations participated in those—there were 12 people who set foot on the Moon—of those 12, how many nations were represented?

Q: (Off mic.)

BOLDEN: You guys are good. That’s it. There’s only been one. And it’s really important for us to understand why other nations want to go, they want to put people on the Moon. We’re the only people that have ever done that. Up until Curiosity, we were the only nation that had ever successfully landed anything on the surface of Mars. When we landed Curiosity, we took along with us five other nations physically, because there are five other nations that have instruments on Curiosity. There are about 15 nations that have investigators.

But when we go up to cislunar space, it’s going to give our international partners an opportunity to be with us, because no venture into deep space is going to be done by one nation. It’s just too difficult, it’s too expensive, and everything. So it will give our partners an opportunity to say, I want to lead and I want to take advantage of the opportunity to lead people to the surface of the Moon. So there will be partner nations that will build landers and rovers. And we can get them to cislunar space. But we’re focused on getting humans to Mars. So that’s the proving ground, if you will.

And then third part is being Earth independent. And that’s finally saying, in the 2030s, we’re going to send humans out to Mars.

JACKSON: So let’s talk about the cislunar part for a second. You know, there’s the so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission. And if that really, you know, capturing an asteroid and putting it into a stable lunar orbit to do various things, why is that important to do?

BOLDEN: Well, a couple of reasons. How many scientists in here, or physicists, or all those other kinds of—anybody play football? (Laughter.) No, seriously, any football players, basketball players? I’m trying to—I’m going to try to put this in common terms. OK. You play football. Soccer? OK.

You know when you’re—I’m going to use a football analogy. Big, burly lineman’s coming in to crush your quarterback. And you got a little running back about his size. And his job is to keep the big, burly lineman from crushing the quarterback. The coach teaches him, OK, don’t—whatever you do, don’t sacrifice your body. You know, just—don’t just get in front of him and try to knock him down. Use some physics. Use what we call vector mechanics. So if he’s coming at your quarterback this way, I want you to just lean on him and just cause him to move ever so slightly, give your quarterback an extra second, if you can. That’s all he needs to throw a touchdown pass.

Well, we’ve got asteroids that are coming at Earth all the time. I mean, hundreds of asteroids a week probably get to Earth’s atmosphere, just for us fortunately they don’t get through, because they burn up. But one of these days Earth’s going to be threatened by another asteroid that took out the dinosaur. And we want to be smarter than the dinosaur. So the Asteroid Redirect Mission, we’re going to use a robotic vehicle. We’re going to send it to meet an inbound asteroid that hopefully is not coming directly at Earth, but is going to pass close enough that it won’t take forever for this robotic vehicle to get to it.

And then it’s going to attach itself to the asteroid. And it’s going to use solar electric propulsion, not a lot of power but a lot of constant power. And it’s going to thrust for about a year and a half to try to take a—we’re going to take a boulder off that asteroid. And we’re going to thrust for about a year and a half to make that boulder move away from its parent asteroid and move toward the moon. And eventually in time, it’ll get close enough that the Sun’s gravity, which is causing it to go around the Sun, will lose out to the Moon’s gravity, and it’ll be drawn into what we call a stable lunar orbit.

So in doing so we do two things. We get a piece of an asteroid, as the president challenged us to do. We put it into a stable lunar orbit where astronauts can then go. It’s all robotic up until now. But then astronauts will go and work with the asteroid, do a lot of technology development on mining or other kinds of things like that so that private industry can use it. We will have demonstrated that physics does, in fact, work. (Laughter.) You know, that the vector mechanics that we all learned when were in college, and some of you in high school, that it really does work in the real world. And we will have moved this big boulder from an asteroid on its trajectory around the Sun to move into a new trajectory around the Moon. So kind of a twofold mission, if you will.

JACKSON: But we’re talking about now humans.

BOLDEN: Humans.

JACKSON: OK. So there are a lot of hazards with getting, you know, humankind to Mars. You talked about an eight-month journey. And I think a 1,100-day journey overall is envisioned, something that could be that long. And two hazards we know about are radiation hazards—you know, cosmic rays and so forth. And actually, those things have—you know, the bounce around even inside of a spacecraft—could cause some DNA mutation. Not necessarily always to ill effect, but we need to understand that.

Similarly, you know, there are questions have to do with pathogens. You know, none of us are sterile. We’re all like our own coral reefs. We all have our own microbiomes where we have a whole—you know, colony sets of colonies of microbes living on us—fungi and bacteria, viruses. And so how do we—(laughter)—keep astronauts medically and psychologically healthy? Can you talk a bit about that?

BOLDEN: The second question you asked is the key one, the psychologically healthy, and I’ll come back to that. But you know, radiation—we have two big challenges to getting to Mars. One is radiation. The other one is a technical challenge of speed. If we could go faster—so if there are any of you out there who are propulsion scientists or propulsion engineers and you want to do something for humanity, bring us a rocket that can cut the time to go to Mars in half. You know, every day, every second that you spend in transit to Mars is that much more exposure to the human body to potentially harmful radiation.

JACKSON: We can work on the twin paradox.

BOLDEN: We have Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station today, who is part of a one-year long mission with his Russian counterpart. So he’s part of the one-year mission. But more importantly, he’s also part of—part of what we call the twin study. And genomicists from around the world are looking at Scott’s DNA and that of his identical twin brother, Mark, who is here on Earth to see if there are any things—any changes that we can detect in the effect. Now, Scott’s not exposed to the kind of radiation that you’ll be exposed to on the way to Mars, but it is more radiation than you’ll find here on Earth. So that’s one thing.

I was telling Dr. Jackson, I was just—I was beside myself when they announced the latest Nobel laureates in Chemistry because at least two of them had done work on replication of damaged DNA. You know, doctors have talked for a long time, and we talk about radiation, everybody talks about shielding. But some people in the medical field have said, well, why don’t we find a way to get the human DNA to repair itself? And there are actually two Nobel laureates who have demonstrated that, in fact, that can happen. How, they’ve not looked at galactic cosmic rays, but they looked at damage from just light. But that’s energy and that’s what we’re worried about. So we’re working on it.

The issue of the human body, we’ve pretty much wrestled to the ground bone loss, muscle mass loss, you know, muscle atrophy and the like. The big challenge will be psychological. Just think about this, you’re—what’s your name?

Q: Katie.

BOLDEN: Katie? OK, Katie, you’re on the first crew to go to Mars. And you launch out of the Kennedy Space Center, Cape Canaveral, and normal things happen the first week. You know, you—the first couple of days you zip past the Moon and everything’s normal. You look back and you can still see the little blue marble and you can see the Moon. And then about a week later, you look back and the little blue marble is no longer a little blue marble. It’s a little dot. And you’re wondering, OK, which of those dots is Earth and which are stars? And you left your daughter behind, who happens to be six-years old. And you’re 12? OK. (Laughter.) OK. So you know, you all are used to talking to each other and tweeting and doing all this kind of stuff.

And so you do your normal Skype call. And you know, you call her, and the phone picks up. And you say, hello? And she says nothing. And she just sits there looking at the screen for, oh, it could be seconds or it could be minutes because now you’re far enough away that the speed of light just won’t get it there the way it does right now. And so to talk to your young child, and to have your young child talk to you, is going to be traumatic for you and your young child. We don’t know how to deal with that yet. That is a psychological challenge that we’re—anybody see “The Martian”?

OK, how many of you—how many of you saw, “The Martian,” here? You know, what was the big—this is not a—I’m not going to tell the story, OK? (Laughter.) But what was my guy worried about? The guy who played me, what was he worried about in informing the crew that—you know, that Matt Damon was still alive? The psychological impact on the crew, you know, knowing that they had left a crew member on Mars who was still living. So psychological problems, psychological issues will be something that we just don’t deal with yet. We’re working with bioethicists and all kinds of people.

JACKSON: So now let’s suppose, you know, we’re on Mars now, whether we got left behind or we went there deliberately.

BOLDEN: Yeah. (Laughter.)

JACKSON: We want the astronauts to travel far and travel light.


JACKSON: So there’s this whole thing about flexible new technologies, like 3-D printing. But then there’s the whole question of what we find there, how you turn it into construction materials, or food, or water, air even. How do we get there?

BOLDEN: We’re looking at what we call in situ resource development, if you will, or capture. When we fly—we’re going to fly another Curiosity-like rover called Mars 2020 in 2020. When it gets to Mars, it has seven scientific investigations. And one of them is going to be a thing that rolls out of the rover. And it actually will take air from the Martian atmosphere and soil. And it will extract—hopefully it will extract carbon, hydrogen, oxygen. So it will take what’s there on the planet and it will break it down into its fundamental elements. So we can put oxygen over in that container, and hydrogen over in that container. So we’re working on that as early as 2020 Rover.

On the International Space Station today, we work on one of the biggest challenges to infants in the world. The largest cause of infant mortality in the world is death to infants from water-borne pathogens, from just bugs in the water, people who don’t have clean drinking water. That would be a problem to our astronauts on the International Space Station if we didn’t find a way to get them clean drinking water because when we start moving out to Mars, we don’t have a supply ship that’s going to come every couple of weeks or every month to bring fresh water.

They’re going to have to make their own or reproduce their own. And so what we’re doing on the International Space Station today is crews collect everything that’s liquid—perspiration, condensate coming off a cooler, urine, you name it. And it gets processed through the filtration system and the purification system. And so they take yesterday’s coffee and make it tomorrow’s coffee. (Laughter.) And so they now know how to do that. That technology has already been brought back to Earth. Everything that we do in space has two purposes. It’s—one of the purposes, and not the primary purpose, to be quite honest, is to make it safe for astronauts to survive and to be able to travel to deep space.

The other purpose, and it’s in our very vision, is to make life better for humans here on Earth. And so we take the water purification system. You’ll find it in use in some third-world countries today, you’ll find it in use in some cities, counties in the United States where they don’t have clean drinking water, where they take that same technology and now make clean drinking water. An ultrasound, it used to be a big machine, it’s now—oh, it’s about this size onboard the International Space Station, so the crews can, you know, an ultrasound of themselves. The images go down to the doc, the flight surgeon, and mission control. And the flight surgeon says, hey, that looks this way that looks that way.

That same technology has now been brought back to Earth. There are companies that sell miniaturized ultrasound, go in and train a midwife who’s in some remote village somewhere to use ultrasound. They can take an expectant woman, do an ultrasound periodically, beam it to a doctor who’s 200 miles away, and the doctor says everything’s OK, until one day it’s not, and then he says bring her in. And so those are the—

JACKSON: Can’t bring them in so easily from Mars, but—

BOLDEN: You’re right.

JACKSON: So let’s come back to Earth for a moment and talk a little bit about the geopolitics, so we can—this is the Council on Foreign Relations. So, you know, when we did the Apollo missions, you know, we were motivated actually by the space race and it was very nationally focused, very governmentally controlled. And now, as you pointed out, it’s much more international. We’re not going to get there alone. And it has a huge commercial component. So let’s talk a little bit about the geopolitical piece for a moment. We cooperate with the Russians. We depend upon them. We depend on Soyuz to get us there and get the main crews there. And since 2011, it’s been the total thing, 2003, as you said, it changed. But since 2011 as well, NASA’s been banned by Congress from cooperating, partnering with China. Is it important to partner with China?

BOLDEN: It’s critical to partner with China. And the prohibition has been softened somewhat—not relieved, but softened—so that the Appropriations Committee, which is where it came from, so-called Wolf amendment, Congressman Wolf himself said the next year that, OK, look, if you will advise the Appropriation Committees on what it is you want to do, certify for us that the people you’re going to be working with are not involved in human rights violations or, you know, they’re not trying to steal our technology, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, then we will have no objection to what you’re doing.

So as a result of the amendment to the Wolf amendment, we now have collaboration going on with the Chinese Academy of Science in Earth science areas. For example, we’re looking together with them on glacier characterization in the Himalayas. We’re working with them on something called geodetics, looking at earthquakes, you know, prediction or at least trying to tell what part of the world they’re going to occur in. We work with them a lot of lunar science. We actually provided imagery to them when we were—I was talking to somebody earlier about the lunar reconnaissance orbiter, LRO. So we provided LRO imagery to the Chinese to help them select a landing site for their Chang’e 3 mission that landed on the Moon. And then we imaged it during the landing with one of our satellites orbiting the Moon, and then took images of Jade Rabbit, their rover, as it came out of their lander. And now we work cooperatively with them in the area of aeronautics in air traffic management, trying to help them organize their air traffic management system so that air traffic can move more smoothly and efficiency in China, the way we’re trying to do here in the U.S.

JACKSON: OK, so we’ve depended a lot on the Russians. And do you think that the activities in Syria and in the Ukraine create any kind of overhang? And I would ask those of you who want to ask questions to begin to gravitate to a mic. Could you speak to that while people are given the mic and—

BOLDEN: The world—I mean, the world situation today puts a lot of strain on the partnership. The good thing is I can say my partner is the Russian space agency, Roscosmos. And so my counterpart is Igor Komarov. Just as I am, he is very intent on trying to make sure that we sustain the partnership, that we work cooperatively. He and I are on the phone a lot. I was telling Dr. Jackson, we’re trying to make sure that cooler heads prevail in our two capitals, trying to make sure that nobody does anything rash.

You know, I mentioned the fact that we’ve been on the International Space Station for 15 consecutive years now uninterrupted. Russian incursion into Georgia, Russian incursion into Crimea, Russian incursion into Ukraine, now with the Russians in Syria. But that’s the politics and the diplomacy. And we work the technical side and the human spaceflight and exploration side. And so far so good. The area that I’m—

JACKSON: So far you’re the space diplomat.

BOLDEN: Eh, the area that I’m concerned about is getting crews to and from orbit. And that’s why we really need for Boeing and SpaceX to be able to carry our crews to space so that we’re not totally reliant on the Russians the way we are.

JACKSON: And bring them back.

BOLDEN: And bring them back. And bring them back. Always bring them back.

JACKSON: If you have a question, and we’ll try to get to as many you can, please give your name and state your affiliation. And I think I saw you first, in the red.

Q: Thank you. Laetitia Garriott, Escape Dynamics.

I wanted to rebound on Russia and ask you about RD-180. And if the ban is implemented, we’ll likely be without launch capability outside of one space launch family, the SpaceX vehicles, from somewhere between 2019 to 2022, until we have new vehicles certified. That’s in breach of the policy established in 2013, that says we need at least two of such families of vehicle. What’s the right answer here?

BOLDEN: See, she married to an astronaut, so that’s why she—

Q: And I run a technology company. So I’m not just married to an astronaut. (Laughter, applause.)

BOLDEN: That’s true. Whoa. (Applause.) Touché, touché. To make it real quick, the RD-180, I’m not sure—I don’t want to assume everybody knows. It’s a Russian rocket engine. It is the engine that’s used on the Atlas V, which is our—right now, our primary heavy-lift rocket flown by United Launch Alliance, ULA. Boeing is using the Atlas V to launch—that’s their launch vehicle for the CST-100 Starliner, the Boeing human spaceflight capsule. There is a restriction that’s imposed on the Department of Defense. So there is a period of time after which they’ll have to go away from using—relying on the RD-180 engine for any national security launches.

To date, we’re sort of exempt from that restriction. It’s just a matter of trying to figure out how do you get the engines purchased by ULA because just selling engines to NASA won’t get it for them. So we continue to work with Congress in trying to come up with a more modest plan for migrating away from the RD-180 to an American-made engine. I think you probably know that Jeff Bezos from Amazon has a BE-4, which is a heavy-lift engine. That, you know, combined with the launch vehicle that ULA has, it’ll be a new vehicle actually. So we will have an American-made—all American-made heavy lift launch vehicle. But we’re a few years away from doing that. You know, if we started from scratch, we’d be, like, six years away and several billion dollars. We’re close now.

JACKSON: Let’s get a question over here. The gentleman with the tie on. But then, every gentleman—(laughter)—he knew who I meant.

Q: I’m heartened by your reminder that there’s no dumb questions. So I’ll take a stab here.

JACKSON: You got to say who you are.

Q: My name is Carl Robichaud. I’m at Carnegie Corporation of New York.

And one of my concerns is that we often take the commons for granted until we lose them, right, whether it be clean air, clean water, our fisheries, et cetera. And I’m worried that one of the commons we might be taking for granted is our Earth orbits, which we use for communications, for geospatial information, all sorts of things. And it seems almost inevitable to me that these will be spheres of contention. And given, for example, how much modern militaries rely on orbit for surveillance, for targeting, for everything else, I can definitely see an era of unconventional attacks on satellites. And I’m wondering, how concerned are you about that? Do you see space as a sphere in which we’re going to see military action and contention? Is there anything that we can do about that? Is it inevitable?

BOLDEN: Yeah, I’m a 34-year veteran of the Marine Corps, and in my—over my career we’ve worked with some pretty bad people. You know, we’ve brought them in close to us and we engage in—well, we engage in engagement, where we try to convince them that the way that they’re going is not the best course of action, try to expose them to the way that we live so that they see how good it is.

The best part about having the Russians as partners, in spite of everything else, is that they are dependent on us as much as we’re dependent on them. So, you know, one of the reasons that they’re very careful about what they do in terms of spaceflight is because they are dependent on us.

The reason I think operating with the Chinese is critical, for the same—the very same reason. You know, low Earth orbit is small. And if we’re partnered with the Chinese, as we are with other nations, I think they would be much less prone to do something that puts low Earth orbit in jeopardy, like, you know, anti-satellite stuff. Now, that may be a naïve thought, but I think that is—that’s what gives me hope, is that the more we can have many nations working toward a common goal, the better off we’ll be.

JACKSON: You could make the argument that people are going to do it anyway, so we better understand sort of some of the constraints.

I know how it feels to sit in the back of the room, so.

BOLDEN: All the way in the back.

JACKSON: The young—the lady back there at the—by the post.

Q: Hi, thank you. Leah Pedersen Thomas, VitalPet.

My question is a bit along the same lines as Carl, just a general concern about space debris, that building up. And how are you taking that into consideration in your larger plans? And second, are you thinking about addressing it as well?

BOLDEN: The U.N. is probably the largest forum right now for trying to get consensus on how we attack debris—not debris mitigation, but debris removal. Not a lot of countries are putting money into debris removal development, and more of us need to. We are among those that’s not putting a lot of money into debris removal. We work a lot on what we call debris mitigation, making rules that say when you put something in space it has to have enough fuel to, when its mission is over, you can either put it into a parking orbit where it won’t come back for a hundred years, or you can safely de-orbit it into the ocean. But that’s not the answer. The answer’s going to be debris removal, and we’ve got to figure out how to do that. And we are not doing sufficient work on it right now.

JACKSON: The lady there in the—with the glasses.

Q: So I guess we’re sort of—oh, sorry, I’m Lauren Chivée from All In Together Campaign.

It seems like we’re sort of taking for granted the idea that it’s a great thing to send people to Mars. I’ll be a dissenter. If we’re—what it is that putting—what do we achieve by putting a human being there that we couldn’t achieve with technology, given that you’ve been able to land an orbiter and given all the risks? Why is it worth it to still pursue putting people there? Is it just so that we can show that we can?

BOLDEN: No, not at all. The actual reason is, so far, robots don’t reason and robots don’t—you know, they don’t make choices the way that human beings do yet. That’s not to say that they won’t someday. It was demonstrated during the short period of time that we were on the Moon when we sent—when we started sending people like Harrison Schmitt, you know, a geologist who could—who could look while he walking around on the surface of the Moon, and in spite of what all the geologists had told him—you know, look for this rock and look for this rock and bring one back—and Harrison saw some, he said, well, I don’t know what that is and I’ve never seen that before, so I’m going to take that. Human beings can make those kinds of decisions and robots can’t just yet.

The other thing is that robots are collectors. They’re not—they’re not processors and people who logically come to a determination of this is what this is telling me. And John Grunsfeld, the head of my Science Mission Directorate, when we landed Curiosity on Mars, he got to the podium that night and he said, I’m going to make a prediction. And I went, oh, geez, this is not good. He said, I’m going to predict that Curiosity will discover nothing. This is before God and the world. And I went, holy geez, this is the head of NASA Science saying Curiosity will discover nothing. He said Curiosity will discover nothing because it’s a robot. Curiosity is going to gather tons and tons of data, and the brilliant people here on Earth are going to take that data and they’re going to make it meaningful.

And so that’s the way we do things. We use machines. We use robots to gather data and to gather imagery and to gather information, and then you interpret what it is.

And so everybody believes that if we had put a human on Mars two years ago, when we put Curiosity there, we would know infinitely more about the planet today than we do because we’re relying on this robot kind of creeping across the surface and, you know, giving us little tidbits of stuff when we tell it to do that—because we have to program it each evening so that the next day it will go here and it will take a—take a picture of this. But it’s incredibly valuable to have humans there.

And the big thing is humans think it’s worthwhile.

JACKSON: This gentleman here, please.

Q: Hi. Eben Kaplan from CrowdStrike.

You described a really powerful global moment when the first lunar landing occurred. About 40 years later, I think it was Charles Krauthammer wrote about the history of human space travel: “We came, we saw, we lost interest.” Has space travel delivered diminishing returns in terms of its ability to inspire? And what does that mean for the future of the missions you’ve described?

BOLDEN: I’ll give you one example that I think it does inspire and it—and it has inspired. We asked for applications for the astronaut program three, four years ago. And for the class of 2013, we had 6,300 applicants. That’s the second-highest number of applicants that we have ever had for the space program, and it was a real down time for NASA. We asked for applicants after we had phased the Shuttle out. We were totally dependent on the Russians to get to space. And yet, we had 6,300 people who applied. We picked eight—four men, four women—and they’re all awesome.

We’re getting ready to ask for the next group of astronauts. We’re going to make the announcement in December officially, and then we’ll be picking astronauts who will begin training in 2017. And my daughter, who’s a plastic surgeon in D.C., says, are you all ready for what you’re going to get? I said, what do you mean? She said, you know, you’re probably going to get 100,000 people apply. And that may very well happen.

I think we’re seeing a resurgence in interest in science and technology among men, women, all kinds of people, and that’s exactly what happened during the Apollo era. It wasn’t—I don’t think the public was overwhelmed at all. Everybody has—you all don’t, because you weren’t around, but most people my age live under this myth that there was this incredible support for the space program and for human spaceflight during the Apollo era. That’s bunk.

Let me tell you what people were doing in the United States. That was the 1960s. I was graduating from the Naval Academy, getting ready to go to Vietnam. People were killing each other in the streets. The civil rights era was at its height. We could(n’t) care less about going to the Moon. Americans were focused on trying to get our country straight, trying to get people out of Vietnam and places all over the world—much the same as we are today, to be quite honest. But you had a small group of people who were really focused on something that we thought was critically important, and you have a small group of people today who really think exploration is critically important are just going ahead. And we’re probably going to have 6,300-plus who will apply for the space program the next time because they want to be a part of making a difference in the world.

And so I’m not—I’m not worried about people losing interest. Americans have no patience whatsoever. (Laughter.) Our attention span is like that, so.

JACKSON: So we’re going to have about a few more minutes of questions, so we’ll try to be succinct on both ends. So the gentleman over here by the pillar. Yes.

Q: Thank you. Excuse my hoarse voice. My name’s Jeff Zinsmeister. I’m with Smart Approaches to Marijuana. My question is actually about the—not about marijuana. (Laughter.)

BOLDEN: That’s what I thought you said. I just—

Q: But I’m happy to talk about that, but that’s not my what my question(’s) about.

My question is actually on the psychological aspect of spaceflight. I was curious to know what sort of research is being done or what are—what are people’s thoughts about the possibility of disputes between crewmembers on long spaceflights, how to resolve differences between people? Or if there’s even been crimes committed between astronauts. (Laughter.)

BOLDEN: We have always been concerned—I mean, even in the early days of Shuttle you were always concerned about interpersonal relationships. The very first time I was a mission commander, I actually brought the psychiatrist in—not psychologist; I brought a psychiatrist in—with our spouses and my crew, and I had him work with us so that—the thing I wanted everybody to understand was what do we look like under stress. What do the different personality types look like under stress? So that, one, we would recognize it. And then how do the rest of us try to head off some dispute that comes up among crews? And we do that even today. We have teambuilding things when a new class comes in, and you’re always trying to help people understand, you know.

JACKSON: We’re going to do two questions up here, one to this gentleman, and then I’m going to see if this young man has a question, and then that’ll be it.

BOLDEN: Got to have one. Got to have one.

Q: Hi, thank you. Adabayou Ben (ph) with Deutsche Bank.

My question is—well, there’s this thing in “The Martian” where the crazy young scientist presents the idea to the administrator. My question is, given the complexity of the problems you face, how do you ensure that happens in real life? How do you avoid groupthink? How do you ensure those creative ideas bubble up and get to people like you?

BOLDEN: I lived through one of those. My second mission was the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope. And we had worked for a couple of years training for this mission, and everything was supposed to work like clockwork. And everything started going wrong the moment we started lifting Hubble out of the payload bay because the robotic arm that, you know, was supposed to compensate for everything, it just wasn’t accustomed to lifting something that much mass. It weighed nothing, but it was still a 25,000-pound mass. And the arm started moving around all kinds of funny ways, so we had to manually—I had to call out numbers to Steve Hawley to get it out. What was supposed to take maybe 10 minutes took an hour and something. And then we deployed the first solar array flawlessly. Second solar array—(makes sound)—16 inches, about, it went out and stopped. And for one whole day, almost, people on the ground everywhere worked trying to figure out, how do we solve this problem?

A young engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center came up with a wild and crazy idea. He said, I don’t think there’s a problem at all except it’s a—it’s a software error in a—in a tension-monitoring module. We had one crewmember onboard who knew what it was. And so this young man, like the guy in “The Martian,” came up with this idea. Took him most of the day to convince people that they should try his solution. He said, if you can—if you can let me turn a one to a zero, we think everything will work. And so at the end of the day they said do it, and it had better work. (Laughter.) And it worked. It was the tension monitoring.

JACKSON: This young man has a question.

Q: What did—what did you learn the most from the Army—from being in the Army?

BOLDEN: From being in the Marine Corps? (Laughter.) I learned to stay out of the Army. (Laughter, applause.) I’m just kidding. I’m just kidding. But you know I’m just kidding, right? I’m just kidding. (Laughter.)

You know, I think—but it’s any service. Since we’re right the day after Veterans Day, I think what I learned the most about the military, it reinforced what I had learned at the dinner table with my parents and your parents are probably teaching you.

I learned one really, really, really important thing: take care of your people and they’ll take care of you. Don’t worry about yourself. Don’t think about how you do something for you. Take care of your people and they’ll take care of you. That’s one of the most important lessons I learned.

And probably the second most important was always listen. In the Marine Corps, they always tell you listen to the gunney—the gunnery sergeant, the senior enlisted guy. Going through The Basic School in Quantico, Virginia, learning how to be a rifle platoon commander, they just beat it into your head: always listen to the gunney. Listen to the experience of the senior enlisted and they’ll keep you out of trouble.

And so always find somebody who knows more than you do. You will never be the—as much as you may think, you will never be the smartest person in the room. Don’t ever allow anybody to fool you that you’re it. There’s always somebody smarter than you. Listen to them. Seek them out.

Be inclusive in everything. You know, look for diversity in your team, which means women, men, black, white, all kinds of face, all kinds of everything, because diverse teams always, always, always do better than—always. It doesn’t make a difference what you’re doing. But be inclusive. And that just means it’s OK to have this diverse team, but if you don’t listen to them you may as well not have them. So give everybody in the team an opportunity to be heard.

JACKSON: And I think that is a wonderful note to end on. Let us thank you, Administrator. (Applause.)


This is an uncorrected transcript.

Top Stories on CFR

Middle East and North Africa

The kafala system regulates the lives of tens of millions of migrant laborers in the Middle East, but growing outrage over human rights abuses, racism, and gender discrimination has fueled calls for reform.


Government leaders are optimistic that COVID-19 is becoming endemic, meaning more predictable and manageable. But many scientists say it’s too soon to behave like the pandemic is over.

Climate Change

The UN climate summit delivered on a loss and damage fund, but it fell short on goals to reduce emissions and avoid the worst consequences of climate change.