Last August, an “interplanetary voice mail” from NASA chief Bolden was transmitted to Earth from the Curiosity rover on Mars.
“Landing a rover on Mars is not easy—others have tried—only America has fully succeeded,” he crowed. “Curiosity will bring benefits to Earth and inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers, as it prepares the way for a human mission in the not-too-distant future.”
This recording was bittersweet, as the agency’s best years may well be behind it. In 2010, President Obama effectively suspended U.S. manned spaceflight by terminating the Constellation program. NASA has struggled to define its mission in the 21st century, as exemplified by a 2010 interview in which Bolden said his “foremost” objective was outreach to the Muslim world. The White House later said he misspoke. Bolden, 66, declined to be interviewed for this report.
A native of South Carolina, Bolden was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps after studying electrical science at the U.S. Naval Academy. From 1972 to 1973, he flew more than 100 combat missions in Southeast Asia as a naval aviator stationed in Thailand.
Bolden earned a master’s degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in 1977, and then enrolled in the Naval Test Pilot School, in Patuxent River, Md. Three years later, he was selected as an astronaut candidate. Between 1986 and 1994, he embarked on four missions aboard the space shuttle, two of which he commanded and one of which included now-Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. He spent a total of 14 years in NASA’s astronaut office, serving as a special assistant to the director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston and later as chief of the safety division, where he helped the agency restore its manned spaceflight program after the 1986 Challenger disaster.
For the next stage of his career, Bolden returned to military service as commanding general of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force Forward during Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait. He retired from the Marines in 2003 and entered the private sector as CEO of a Houston-based consulting firm. He returned to NASA in 2009 when Obama nominated him to head the agency. In 2002, President Bush had nominated him for a senior position at NASA, but Pentagon officials refused to release him from his Marine Corps duties.