ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, TENN. --
Citing the appropriateness of the setting, Charles Bolden Jr. gave those in attendance for his speech at the University of Tennessee Space Institute a little homework assignment.
“Your homework is to do all you can with what you have with the time that you have in the place that you are,” Bolden said.
Bolden, a retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General, former astronaut and the first black administrator of NASA, was the speaker at the Arnold Air Force Base Black History Observance hosted by the African-American Heritage Committee, Feb. 9 in the UTSI Auditorium.
Former President Barack Obama nominated Bolden as the 12th NASA Administrator in 2009, and Bolden served in this capacity through January 2017.
Bolden spent 14 years of his 34-year career with the Marines Corps as a member of the NASA Astronaut Office. After joining that office in 1980, he traveled to orbit four times aboard the space shuttle between 1986 and 1994. He commanded two of those missions and piloted the others. His flights included deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope and the first joint U.S.-Russian shuttle mission.
He was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2006.
“I am proud to be among the pioneering cadre of African-American astronauts who broke both gravitational and color barriers when we first blasted off into space,” Bolden said.
The 2018 Black History theme is “African-Americans in Times of War.” The annual theme is established by the Association for African American Life and History and, according to that organization’s website, this year’s theme commemorates the centennial of the end of the First World War in 1918 and explores the “complex meanings and implications of this international struggle and its aftermath.”
Bolden, whose father served in an all-black unit during World War II, said the theme serves to remind all that African-American history is American history.
“African-Americans have fought and died on every battlefield of freedom in our nation’s history and continue to do so today,” he said. “We stand on the shoulders of and continue the heritage of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines, and the Buffalo Soldiers.”
African-American history is also part of NASA’s history, Bolden said.
In his years as an astronaut, Bolden spent nearly 700 total hours in space. But, rather than discuss his accomplishments, Bolden was more inclined to talk about the unsung African-American pioneers who dreamed of making it to space but who “fell through the cracks of history or faced insurmountable roadblocks at the crossroads of freedom and equality.”
U.S. Air Force Capt. Ed Dwight Jr. never made it into space despite being selected as the first African-American astronaut trainee in 1961. However, Bolden said Dwight achieved greatness elsewhere, becoming an acclaimed bronze sculptor whose masterworks include Hank Aaron, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Fitzgerald and President Obama. Dwight also supported Bolden during his 2009 NASA administrator confirmation.
In 1967, Air Force Maj. and test pilot Robert Lawrence Jr. became the first African-American to qualify as an astronaut. Like Dwight, Lawrence never made it into space. Just months after his becoming the first black astronaut, Lawrence was killed during a training flight at Edwards Air Force Base.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Livingston Holder Jr. did qualify as a spaceflight engineer and was slated to go into space, but could not fly due to the 1986 Challenger accident.
Bolden also highlighted Lt. Gen. Frank Peterson Jr., the first black general in the U.S. Marine Corps who stepped forward to serve at a time when laws were designed to hold African-Americans back.
“While young Frank Peterson Jr. was determined to serve his country, I doubt that then-Navy electronics technician Peterson had any idea he would end up in the Marine Corps as its first black pilot, first African-American general officer and a national icon,” Bolden said. “But that’s the beauty of America. We are still the only place on earth where our dreams can take us to Mars and to places we have not yet imagined.
“This is only true because of people like Lt. Gen. Frank Peterson Jr., Col. Guion Bluford, Capt. Ed Dwight, Maj. Robert Lawrence, and countless other foot soldiers for freedom who have served this great country of ours in uniform. Throughout our history, they have insisted that this nation live up to its promise of liberty and justice for all.”
Bolden urged those in attendance to join him in celebrating the contributions of African-American men and women in the nation’s military during times of both war and peace.
To close out his speech, Bolden shared the story of Nkosi Johnson, a South African child who died of AIDS in 2001 at the age of 12. Nkosi was HIV-positive from birth as his mother was infected with AIDS. His mother died shortly after his birth.
Nkosi was adopted by his mother’s friend Gail Johnson. Bolden said as Nkosi grew up, the child never complained about being sick but instead spent his time trying to improve the lives of others, speaking out against AIDS despite the government in his home country disavowing the disease.
“He knew he was sick, but he wanted to find a way so other children would never be sick the way he was,” Bolden said.
Journalist Jim Wooten heard Nkosi’s story and traveled to Africa to meet the boy. Bolden said Wooten observed that while Nkosi looked sickly, he was busy directing others. Wooten asked Nkosi what motivated him.
“Nkosi said, ‘I may be black, I may be poor, I may have AIDS but, in this world, we are all the same,’” Bolden said.
Wooten would eventually author Nkosi’s biography, “We Are All the Same.” Wooten again caught up with Nkosi as the child was on his deathbed. Nkosi never cried out in pain, smiling through his sickness. This led Wooten to ask Nkosi what made him tick.
“Nkosi looked up at him, smiling that big smile, and said, ‘You do all you can with what you have with the time that you have in the place that you are,’” Bolden said.