Reach for the sky, former NASA chief exhorts Vietnamese youth

By Viet Anh   June 17, 2019 | 07:33 pm PT
Reach for the sky, former NASA chief exhorts Vietnamese youth
Charles Bolden, the former chief of NASA, speaks at a conversation in Hanoi, June 12, 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.
Major General Charles Bolden Jr. believes Vietnamese have tremendous space science potential and that the youth should chase their dreams.

He traveled four times to space between 1986 and 1994 and was NASA chief from 2009 to 2017, but, as a child, Bolden never dreamed of being an astronaut, thinking it was beyond someone like him.

Today, the former marine has a message for Vietnamese youth. They should dream and have to work hard to pursue their dreams. "Don’t be afraid of failure. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do something that you want to do. If you fail, it’s ok, you just learn from it and grow," he said in a conversation with VnExpress last week.

"You can’t be the best if you don’t work hard," whether it is to become a scientist, an athlete or a musician, he said. If they want to be an astronaut, they should study math and science, as well as history and language, he told Vietnamese kids, reiterating that hard work was key to success.

As the first ever African American NASA chief, Bolden said he believes every child can become an astronaut if they have passion and work hard for it. He said his concern now was how Vietnam could make its children interested in space science. He said he could see that Vietnamese youth have a lot of potential in this field if they learn how to cultivate their passion. He wondered if Vietnam had any programs related to space study in elementary schools and if the media in Vietnam has done anything to direct children’s attention towards space.

"If you and I were on the International Space Station today, it would not ever cross my mind that you were Vietnamese and it would probably never cross your mind that I was an African American. It just wouldn’t mean anything. It wouldn’t make any difference. So that’s the benefit, the biggest advantage to try to and encourage our kids to get involved in science," he said.

Growing up in South Carolina as a black kid, Bolden said he had never dreamed of being an astronaut, and believed "that is something that was out of reach for me." When he was growing up, white and black kids did not go to the same school, he said, and "there was no opportunity for somebody in my community to grow up to become an astronaut."

But Bolden refused to give up or step back. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in electrical science in 1968 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, a branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. After completing flight training in 1970, he became a Naval Aviator and joined the Vietnam War in 1972 - 1973. After the war, he got a Master of Science degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in 1977.

While working at the Naval Air Test Center's Systems Engineering and Strike Aircraft Test Directorates, he tested a variety of ground attack aircraft until his selection as an astronaut candidate in 1980.

His decision to apply to work as an astronaut came after he met Ronald McNair, only the second African American who had been to space. McNair died in 1986 along with six other astronauts in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. When Bolden told McNair that he would never be picked if he applied, he received a strange look from the latter. "That was the dumbest thing I have heard, how do you know if don’t ask," McNair said. This left an impact on Bolden.

"I was embarrassed by the fact that I did not have confidence. My mom and dad had raised me better than that, they had always told me you can do what you want to do..."

As he told his own story, Bolden re-emphasized the potential Vietnamese people have in space science, saying it has been proven. Around 100 Vietnamese Americans are now working at NASA’s Johnson Space Center and "their performance was exceptional and they wouldn’t have been there if they weren’t exceptional people. We didn’t hire them because they were Vietnamese Americans, we hired them because of their expertise."

The fact that Vietnamese Americans dominate in the areas of computer science and programming means they are equal to or better than most people, he said. 

He also recalled a story when his son, in third grade then, went home and told him he would stop making volcano from paper, glass and ice for his science project at school because his classmates, the Vietnamese Americans, did real science projects. Bolden then learned that the parents of those Vietnamese Americans placed strict demands on their children to perform in school because they knew that, as a minority group in a new environment, they had to be better than others.

Relationship with Vietnam

Now a U.S. Science Envoy for Space, Bolden was on his second trip to the country after the Vietnam War.

His first trip was when he visited Hanoi in 2012 and the capital city was commemorating 40 years of the Christmas bombings in 1972. He said: "They (Vietnamese people) reached out to me and made me feel welcome and warm although they knew that I had been one of the people who had been flying and fighting against their country."

On his second post-war trip, Bolden met with several state agencies and private firms to share experiences about doing businesses in the space science sector and to create conditions for more people to go into space. He spoke at two seminars, which gathered many young people interested in space science, at the Vietnam National Space Center in Hanoi and the Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology. 

The U.S. government is using NASA and several other organizations to boost cooperation with researchers and scientists in Vietnam, he said, encouraging Vietnam to continue on the path it has taken for space science, like making and launching small satellites.

Commenting on the relationship between Vietnam and the U.S., two former enemies that are now strengthening cooperation in many fields, Bolden said that the two sides are trying to overcome the past. In the field of science and space exploration, researchers from both countries are trying to find ways to make human life better; they have looked beyond national borders and nationalities to focus on the missions and goals they want to achieve.

In fact, when a group of people with different backgrounds are put into the same environment where they have to learn to cooperate with each other, the differences disappear, he said. Looking ahead at the future, Bolden touched on the existential threat facing humankind today. From the space looking down, he said, there are no borders or boundaries between nations..., there is just a thin blue line between earth and space and it is humans’ mission to keep it alive.  

"The understanding of space made me see how much we depend on the natural environment and that we have not taken the obligation to take care of it seriously enough."

go to top