NASA Administrator Charles Bolden discusses paradigm shift in space exploration

Wednesday, October 22, 2014, Ithaca, N.Y.–Major General Charles F. Bolden Jr. is surprisingly down to earth for an astronaut who piloted the space shuttle and logged more than 680 hours in space. After delivering the 2014 William R. Sears Distinguished Lecture, “NASA’s Roadmap to Tomorrow’s Missions,” to a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 at Cornell University, the NASA administrator was asked to identify the biggest challenge facing the space agency over the next decade. “Congress,” he quipped.

During congressional testimony to justify the agency’s budget for space exploration, Bolden explained, he routinely answers that NASA “doesn’t spend a dime in space.” The NASA budget, which represents less than half of one percent of federal outlays, is spent here on Earth. The agency funds astronomy, climate, medicine and technology research at NASA centers, universities and private companies.

Bolden cited recent examples of NASA-funded scientific discoveries and technological innovations: earth and atmospheric observations that map climate change, carbon nanotube biocapsules that diagnose and treat illnesses, and Iron Man-like exoskeletons that hone strength and flexibility. These breakthroughs in turn reap direct social and economic benefits for the United States and the world. “What is the value of a wounded warrior being able to walk again with the help of an exoskeleton?” Bolden asked. You cannot put a monetary value on such transformative technological transfer, he argued.

Bolden highlighted Cornell’s deep contributions to the space program, dating to the 1950s, when astronomy professor Carl Sagan advised NASA’s pioneering space missions. Mae Jemison, M.D. ’81, blazed trails as the first woman of color in space. James A. Weeks Professor of Physical Sciences Steve Squyres’ lead role in the NASA Mars rover missions, which riveted the world, continued Cornell’s stellar space science achievements.


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden examines a KickSat prototype, with Cornell graduate student Zac Manchester.

Since the decommissioning of the space shuttle fleet, Bolden has had to counter cynics who believe that NASA’s glory days are long past. He traced the evolution of NASA’s missions that laid the groundwork for a major paradigm shift: technological innovation is increasing, he argued, and has democratized and commercialized space exploration. What was once the sole province of government is now in the hands of citizen scientists and private companies. Low-cost, readily available technology enables students to launch PhoneSats and CubeSats, such as Cornell’s CUSat, that give students “routine access to space.” As early as next year, “New Space” companies plan to carry private passengers on suborbital flights.

NASA, in effect, has turned over access to low Earth orbit (LEO)–the altitude range at which the International Space Station (ISS) and most satellites orbit–to private companies. “NASA is not in the LEO business. We don’t do LEO anymore. We buy the service. We pay the Russians to carry crew. We pay SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to carry cargo,” Bolden noted.

Reliance on the Russian Federal Space Agency, or Roskosmos, to transport U.S. astronauts to the ISS has caused political controversy. The ISS is a critical partnership for both the United States and Russia, explained Bolden, and Roskosmos’ commitment is “unwavering.” Boeing and SpaceX have secured NASA contracts to ferry U.S. astronauts to ISS as well and are slated to begin transport services in 2017.

Bolden noted that contracting out space transport services has resulted in significant cost savings, allowing NASA to focus on venturing beyond LEO, with greener technology. The ISS, managed by five international partners, is now serving as a springboard for extended missions in space. (Compared to today’s ISS stays of up to six months, Bolden said, his space travels were “camping trips.”) The Orion crew vehicle’s first test flight is set for early December. When it is fully operational, Orion, as part of the Space Launch System in current development, will take astronauts to asteroids and Mars, the first time in decades that NASA will venture past LEO.

When President Barack Obama named Bolden NASA chief in 2009, the president tasked him with securing global partnerships for space exploration. The president advocated including “non-traditional partners” in the family of space-faring nations. Fifteen nations now conduct research on Mars. Spain’s Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS) sends a daily weather report from Mars. In September, NASA’s Maven orbiter team tweeted congratulations to India’s first interplanetary mission, the Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), when it reached the Red Planet.

“Any human mission to Mars will be a global effort,” Bolden emphasized. Spain, along with France and Norway, have partnered with NASA for a 2020 mission to Mars, a precursor to landing humans there by the 2030s. NASA’s international partners continue to view the U.S. agency as the space-faring leader, Bolden added.

NASA also continues to push the boundaries of the aeronautical, atmospheric and space sciences. NASA’s next-generation technology is making air travel safer, more efficient and “greener.” In 2014 alone, NASA launched five new space science missions to measure atmospheric conditions related to climate change. By 2018, the Webb Space Telescope will allow astronomers to decipher the mysteries of planetary, star and galaxy formation. When NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft arrives at Pluto next year, the United States will have spacecraft in the vicinity of every planet (plus the demoted planet itself) and beyond, as Voyager continues its journey past the boundary of the solar system.


Cornell graduate Rodrigo Zeledon describes his electrolysis propulsion research to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

A self-confessed “eternal optimist,” Bolden concluded that it is a great time to be involved in aerospace. He dubbed this generation of students a “space generation” that has grown up watching the ISS orbit overhead. They take for granted that people can live and work in space. November 2, 2014, in fact, marks the 14th anniversary of continuous human space habitation, Bolden noted. The students in the room, he pointed out, may well be the ones to devise technology to shield astronauts from radiation, to create a new propulsion system to transport mass to Mars for human habitation, and to analyze existing data to solve climate change. They will usher NASA through its next big paradigm shift.

Bolden’s speech capped a day-long visit to Cornell Engineering. The administrator gave a guest lecture in Professor Mason Peck’s MAE 3060 Spacecraft Engineering course. Bolden also visited Peck’s Space Systems Design Studio labs to see student-made satellite prototypes and had a lively discussion with freshman engineering students over lunch.


NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gets an update on Cornell’s Violet nanosatellite from project lead Hunter Adams.

“It’s a real honor for the NASA administrator to take the time to visit Cornell, to meet with students and faculty, and to discuss space technology research and education,” said Peck, who worked with Bolden as NASA’s Chief Technologist in 2012 and 2013. “I’m sure the students will remember the spacecraft design class in which he gave a lecture for the rest of their lives. And imagine being one of the freshmen who had lunch with him—what a great way to start your undergraduate studies.”

The William R. Sears Distinguished Lecture, sponsored by Cornell’s Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, honors the founder and director of the Graduate School of Aeronautical Engineering. A noted aircraft designer and expert in wing theory and transonic flight, Professor Sears also founded Cornell’s Center of Applied Mathematics.