Astronaut, mentor visits Eielson
By Airman 1st Class Justin Weaver, 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 03, 2006
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska --
Former astronaut and retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden recently visited Eielson as the guest speaker of a dinner celebrating African-American History month.
Motivated as a child by different navy themed television programs, such as Men of Annapolis, Navy Log and the West Point Story, General Bolden had the support of his parents when he told them he wanted to join the Naval Academy.
"It was not a time for black kids growing up in Columbia, S.C. to have those thoughts," General Bolden said. "But I never gave up the thought of flying."
His father, the late Charles Bolden, who taught and coached football at his son’s high school, often told his son that he would overcome the problems of prejudice. And he did. In 1964, General Bolden was one of the few blacks to enter the U.S. Naval Academy.
“The biggest struggles I had were mental and psychological,” General Bolden said. “I was one of only seven blacks in our class of 1,200. In our second year at the academy, there were only four of us left and we formed a tight-knit bond that helped get us through the last three years at the academy.”
Two days after graduating from the Naval Academy in June of 1968 General Bolden married his wife, Jackie, in the chapel at Annapolis.
“My wife and I agreed that as long as we had fun doing our jobs, we would stick with it,” he said. “Thirty-four years of service and we’re still having fun.”
At the African-American History Month Celebration Dinner Feb. 23 General Bolden spoke about being a mentor to our young Airmen and children.
"It's our obligation - it's our heritage - to help our young Airmen and our children understand that they are good, and that they're valuable,” he said. "We need to dare them to achieve. We have an obligation with whom we work with to help them understand that heritage, to help them understand the obligation to dare to achieve."
Taking risks is important, General Bolden said, and failure is an inevitable byproduct of a daring spirit.
“And that's not bad,” he added. “Sometimes they need to fail, because it will help them grow.”
As an example, he said he applied for test pilot school six or seven times before being accepted.
"Going to space and flying airplanes was not in the cards, not for me," is what he thought as an African-American youth. "I knew astronauts, and they were all Anglo-Saxons, about 5-foot-10, and they were all military test pilots at that time. So that was not in the cards for me. I didn't fool myself - there was no way in the world I was going to do that."
But persistence paid off for General Bolden when he accepted a commission as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and became a naval aviator in May 1970, flying more than 100 sorties into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
In 1980, General Bolden joined the space shuttle program. He was pilot of the shuttle Columbia mission on January 12, 1986, the last successful mission before the shuttle Challenger explosion. When he first entered the space shuttle program, he said he felt frustrated.
In 1990, he piloted the space shuttle Discovery and helped deploy the Hubble Space Telescope. On his final mission, in 1994, Bolden commanded the Discovery flight that was the first joint U.S.-Russia space mission.
Those are heady accomplishments for an African-American youth who feared his skin color would keep him from realizing his dreams.
“We must find ways to free up the time of our Airmen so they can expand their horizons,” General Bolden said. "Many of them will become our nation's and our world's leaders. So it's important that we allow them to be educated in the best way possible." (Courtesy of Pacific Air Forces)