May 20, 2022

Art & Lifestyle:

Bolden Rides ‘Soft Power’ to NASA and Beyond

Just as former NASA administrator and retired Marine Corps test pilot Charles Bolden, promised, his personable webinar, “My Journey to NASA and Becoming a Soft Power Advocate,” was “not a speech or a lecture … but about how I fell into the space program and learned about soft power.” And it was about some of what he learned along his path toward success overcoming obstacles of race by “never giving up.”

To “fall into the space program” coming out of the segregated South – where General Bolden believed until he reached high school that an engineer ran a train – definitely began with an upbringing as the eldest of two sons of schoolteachers in Columbia, SC. The underlying mantra from that beginning connected to every step of his life and throughout the webinar, “Never be afraid of failure.”

He recounted being reminded of that conviction when a colleague asked why he had not applied for the first cadre of astronauts to the space shuttle. “They’d never pick me,” he’d said. “How do you know if you don’t try?” his colleague replied.

“I limited myself,” he explained in the webinar. He applied and was selected for the second cadre.

He credits colleagues, mentors, and his wife with prompting him to accept opportunities that advanced his career toward commanding two space shuttles and co-piloting two more before heading NASA during the Obama administration. And he credits his parents’ insistence that he “never give up” and from them also learned of the successes that can be achieved using soft power.

He watched the impact of soft power when his mother launched a Human Relations Commission in South Carolina during civil rights violence of the 1960s as a way for that state to bring shared goals to the fore as a tool to avoid violence.

As NASA administrator at a time of Muslim controversy at home, the Obama administration’s initiatives to carry technology abroad sent Administrator Bolden in 2010 to help the United Arab Emirates begin their space program. The UAE opened a space agency in 2014. “Yesterday,” Mr. Bolden said, “they became the fifth nation to reach Mars and the second nation successful on the first attempt.”

Mars is a complicated and important challenge, he explained. It takes “eight months to get there, on a good day. There’s no supply ship coming. The toilet has to work for three years. You have to make your own food and water.”

The UAE probe, Hope, will study weather and climate on Mars, which used to have Earth’s atmosphere and a temperate climate “but burned itself out.” Bolden and others hope to learn ways the Earth can avoid that fate.

“President Obama’s initiative paved the way,” he said of the Hope probe, a partnership with US. “I am very proud to have been a part of that. … That’s being a soft power advocate.”

Asked if the new Space Force branch of the military represented the hard power side of space compared to NASA’s soft power, General Bolden said the new Space Force largely assumes tasks previously assigned under the Air Force, he explained. “It doesn’t jeopardize anything NASA wants to do in space.”

The missions of the agencies are different, and each will likely continue to use soft power. For NASA, soft power presents the advantages of partnering to advance the study of space. General Bolden said Chief of Space Operations John Raymond would use soft power with international military counterparts to convey that “nobody wants to take the US on.”

It all comes down to this, Mr. Bolton concluded, “Do all you can, with what you have, in the time you have, in the place where you are.”

The virtual event was hosted by The Patuxent Partnership and the Center for the Study of Democracy at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

The Patuxent Partnership is a nonprofit member organization that fosters collaboration between government, industry, and academia to advance education through STEM-based initiatives; to advance technology through speaker programs, forums, and networking; to advance science and technology transfer through the exchange of ideas, information, and data related to technologies; and to increase workforce development through an array of initiatives.

To learn more about The Patuxent Partnership and its programs, visit its Leader member page.

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