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NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was at Cornell Engineering

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden speaks with Professor Mason Peck's MAE 3060 Spacecraft Engineering class.

By:  Christopher Dawson, Marketing and Communications, Cornell Engineering

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was at Cornell Engineering on Wednesday, October 22 to deliver the 2014 William R. Sears Lecture at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.  Bolden, who is a retired United States Marine Corps Major General and a former NASA astronaut, was nominated by President Barack Obama to lead NASA in May 2009.  He was confirmed by the Senate on July 15, 2009 and has been the head of NASA ever since.

In addition to delivering the Sears Lecture, Bolden had a full day of activities on campus.  He started by speaking to Professor Mason Peck’s MAE 3060 Spacecraft Engineering class.

Bolden led off the informal session by saying, “This is not a speech or a lecture. It is more of a conversation, so feel free to ask questions and interrupt.”  The 40 students and other guests took Bolden up on his offer.  There were questions about the technology, the politics, and the economics of space exploration.  Bolden spoke freely and shared the unique insights available to someone who has both flown as an astronaut and sat at the NASA Administrator’s desk. 

Bolden offered the students general advice on how to get to do what you want to do: “Work hard, study hard, and don’t be afraid of failure.”  To illustrate the third point—don’t be afraid of failure—he told of the Morpheus design team at NASA.  They built a small prototype lander and on its first free flight it crashed and burned, literally.  “As soon as it crashed, I was on the phone with the team that built it, encouraging them to take what they had learned and make it better,” said Bolden.  “I encourage failure.  If you never fail, it might just mean you are not trying hard enough things.”

When asked about the biggest legacy of the 30-year space shuttle program, Bolden gave a surprising answer.  “The shuttle’s longest-lasting legacy is the people it has created.  Before the shuttle program you would not have seen Sally Ride or Cornell graduate and doctor Mae Jemison or Sultan bin Salman al Saud from Saudi Arabia as astronauts,” said Bolden.  “There was very little hope of diversity in the space program until the shuttle program came along.”  Bolden is the first African-American to lead NASA in its 56-year history.

When asked what comes next for NASA, Bolden talked about President Obama’s goal to land people on Mars by 2030.  “We will be testing the Orion spacecraft on December 4 of this year,” said Bolden.  “It is going to orbit the Earth once or twice and then return to splashdown in the ocean.  We’ll be testing many of the systems that are critical to safety.”  According to NASA’s website, Orion “will serve as the exploration vehicle that will carry the crew to space, provide emergency abort capability, sustain the crew during the space travel, and provide safe re-entry from deep space return velocities.”  Bolden compared President Obama’s goal of walking on Mars with John Kennedy’s goal of walking on the moon: “In both cases, the public did not fully support these visions at first, but at NASA we took it seriously.  It is what we are working for.”

Later in the day, Bolden went to lunch at Banfi’s in the Statler Hotel with Professor Peck and ten Cornell Engineering undergraduates and graduate students from several different engineering disciplines.  At lunch they discussed Bolden’s experiences as an astronaut, his efforts to build up NASA in the face of a difficult political environment, and some of the new missions NASA is now working on.  Student questions ranged from “Why explore space with humans—why not use robots?” to “What does it take to join the astronaut corps?”  Students also discussed their enthusiasm for Cornell’s growing success in spacecraft engineering, including its expanded curriculum in this area.

In the afternoon, Bolden delivered the 2014 William R. Sears Lecture to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people.  The title of his talk was "NASA's Roadmap to Tomorrow's Missions" and it took place in Phillips Hall.  Bolden spent some time describing NASA’s plan to capture an asteroid and redirect it into orbit around Earth’s moon.  He also talked about the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew vehicle and how they may be used to take astronauts to and from the captured asteroid and to and from Mars.

“It’s a real honor for the NASA Administrator to take the time to visit Cornell, to meet with students and faculty, and to discuss space-technology research and education,” said Professor Mason Peck, who worked with Bolden as NASA’s Chief Technologist in 2012 and 2013.  “I’m sure the students will remember the spacecraft-design class in which he gave a lecture for the rest of their lives.  And imagine being one of the freshmen who had lunch with him—what a great way to start your undergraduate studies.”

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