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Rocket Man: To Bolden Go Where No Man…

During the campaign last year, when people were wringing their hands over how racist America is, I noted that we’d had 13 black astronauts in space, including 3 female, and 2 as mission commanders.(The first black astronaut, i.e. from the astronaut program, Robert Lawrence, died in flight training in 1967 before he made it into space. The 2nd, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, was a cosmonaut who flew for the Russians in 1980.  The first black NASA astronaut was Guion Bluford, who flew 4 missions and racked up an MBA, a PhD in Aeronautical Engineering and a minor in laser physics, before retiring to go back into Engineering.) Not necessarily the opportunity people think of when discussing our racial problems, but you have to wonder, why not?

iCharles Bolden Jr.’s story begins growing up in South Carolina with his parents working in a school, a librarian and a head coach. Trying to get into the academies, he originally wrote then Vice President Lyndon B Johnson, who told him to write back when he was ready to graduate. By then, LBJ was president, and hooked Bolden up with an Illinois Congressman to sponsor him for the Naval Academy. Besides earning an engineering degree, he came out a pilot, and flew over 100 missions over Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos – our secret wars, a rather dangerous occupation.  Bolden then applied to the NASA program (rejected 4 times, accepted on the 5th) and flew on 4 shuttle missions, 2 of them as commander. Serving as a high administrator for NASA, he also reached the rank of Major General to become the highest ranking African-American in Marine history.

So yesterday, a few days from the 40th anniversary of Neil’s moondance, Bolden was named head of NASA. Like Obama, his "good news" comes at a bad time – besides our budget problems, the NASA program is loaded down with bad planning and bad priorities both from Congress and the prior administration. Misguided attempts to go to Mars with no funding and no reason,  at the expense of the Shuttle and the Hubble Telescope, a misguided and expensive space station partnership with the Russians, unresolved issues of manned vs. unmmaned space flight, loss of morale in the organization through politicization and the 10 disastrous years of Dan Goldin and 4 slightly-less disastrous years of Sean O’Keefe.

But likely most people will ignore Bolden’s accomplishment. We don’t usually pay much attention to engineers unless they own a successful company. The space program lost its excitement because of a lack of purpose, political goals over real exploration and scientific accomplishment, a failure of imagination. Through a lack of communication or even understanding by the bosses as to why space was still interesting. "Here to Go!" Bryon Gysin once cried. "Faster, better, cheaper", murmured Dan Goldin as he bean-counted them to mediocrity.

During last year’s campaign at least one person had great fun at my expense when I noted that Linux and open source and the internet revolution had all sorts of ramifications for poor black children or poor children of any complexion, that for a free Linux CD and a $100 used computer, any kid could become a hacker, for $10 per month could access tons of info on the internet. "Har har har", was the response. We only praise opportunities that come as part of a large program. Free digital books and articles? No dice. We seem to only promote and value black opportunity in politics, medicine, entertainment and religion. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a black lawyer – hey, what’s not to like? (Darren might Dissent against this negative stereotype, but then again, he might not.) But blacks in science and engineering? Somehow in our culture it feels like a contradiction, like jumbo shrimp.

In any case, I salute the space program and the opportunity it’s given hard working people who dream of the stars, or if that’s too corny, the rare chance to escape our atmosphere, and the merit it conveys on those who’ve worked their butts off to pass the years of demanding requirements (and not very great pay) to become an astronaut, the physical and mental competition all the way through the program. To Gen. Bolden, multiple kudos for what is a rarity in Washington, a completely uncontroversial, merited selection beyond reproach. And in this special year, where a lot of kids will start dreaming of being president some day, maybe a few will be touched by Bolden’s example, bringing up similar feelings to what I had as a kid, the respect for what science can build, as well as that longing to find a shuttle sitting unguarded with its keys in the ignition, a little inter-galactic joy riding, back when the politicians had reduced space exploration into riding an elevator. Maybe Bolden can give us back our ambitious, inspiring space program. That would be something.

[And while I’m not a big Star Trek fan, its image of a multi-cultural space pod touring the galaxies in our distant, more tolerant future was not easy to erase from our brains, nor its admonition, "To boldly split no infinitives…" that must have driven a generation of English teachers absolute ape shit.]

[And since many/most of us know about The Right Stuff (hint: book much better), it might be interesting to look in on "Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science" – perhaps not as humorous and rollicking a read as Tom Wolfe, but good stuff nonetheless.] 

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