Open Letters

Open Letter to Charles Bolden Former NASA Administrator

Charles “Charlie” Bolden was the NASA Administrator from 2009 to 2017 under the Obama Administration.


Dear Mr. Bolden,

On January 13, 2017, I watched your farewell speech at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. with mixed emotions. Your relationships with the people around you seemed genuine and heartfelt. Your description of the great things NASA had done while you were the NASA Administrator made me feel proud to be a part of the NASA team.

Over the next several days, I replayed the event in my head. As I did, I filtered through the feel-good-ness of your words and asked myself one simple question:

“Is NASA better off today than it was eight years ago when you became the NASA Administrator?”

I wanted the answer to be yes, but regardless of how hard I tried, I always arrived at the same conclusion: NASA is worse off after eight years under your leadership.

While you were in charge, the Shuttle program was cancelled without a vehicle to replace it, the Constellation program (the vehicle being designed to get us back to the moon by 2020) was cancelled because NASA couldn’t get the design to work, and SLS (the current vehicle being designed to carry humans into space) is so far over budget and behind schedule that some question whether it will ever fly.

NASA hasn’t launched astronauts into space from American soil for six out of the eight years you were in charge, and we had to pay Russia to carry our astronauts to and from the International Space Station because your NASA couldn’t do it. What would Von Braun say about that? Didn’t we have a space race to the moon with the Russians, and win?

NASA didn’t move quickly enough after the Shuttle program was cancelled, and thousands of engineers and technicians across the country lost their jobs because of it. Workers at the Kennedy Space Center were hardest hit because NASA failed to deliver something for them to launch into space. Lives were impacted. Families were destroyed.

Sure, we have the International Space Station, but the general public hardly connects with that. If I asked a random group of people to tell me what NASA is doing in space now, few would mention the Space Station. It’s not the same as watching a vehicle blaze off the launch pad from Florida with humans onboard.

Unlike some of my colleagues, I didn’t have an issue with you crying when you gave speeches. You weren’t leading men into battle; you were trying to make NASA engineers feel good about themselves, even though we didn’t have much to feel good about. A few tears probably helped.

My favorite line you used in your stump speeches was, “Mars is closer than ever before.” That phrase always seemed to resonate with the crowd. It had a feel-good-ness to it that was well worth the nine syllables it took to say it. Good enough to be a political talking point—hard to argue against, hard to say what it meant, hard to gauge progress.

At least your “line” gave us something positive to say to our families at the dinner table after a hard day at work catching up on our Workplace Violence training, and attending the mandatory safety meeting where (this week) we learned about the importance of washing our hands after we use the restroom (no joke). Honey, “We’re closer to Mars than ever before,” worked every time. A few tears would have made my delivery even better, but I’m not that good.

But you certainly don’t lack charisma. You manipulated a workforce to rate itself as the best place in government to work for five years in a row. That’s good leadership, especially since NASA was canceling programs and laying off contractors. Maybe the NASA civil servant workforce loved their jobs because they weren’t the ones being fired, the contractors were. Regardless, NASA’s performance (your performance) shouldn’t be measured by how well employees like their jobs. That’s insane.

The real void in the last eight years is that NASA has failed to inspire a generation under your administration. This is one of NASA’s greatest charters, and we failed miserably. Burt Ratan, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and most of my colleagues (including myself) all saw something at NASA when we were young that resonated in our sole, and it usually revolved around human space flight.

We haven’t launched humans into space from American soil for seven years and counting. If you’re a teenager today, you haven’t seen NASA launch humans into space while you’ve been a teenager. Freshman entering college this year saw astronauts liftoff from Florida last when they were ten years old. We will never get back that lost opportunity to inspire. This is, perhaps, the real legacy of your administration.

NASA is on the path of becoming irrelevant in the world of space flight. We’ve been out of the space business since 2011, we have to pay the Russians to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, the new SLS program is using rocket motors designed in the seventies, and the current NASA simply doesn’t have the skill set to send humans to Mars—even though we talk like we do.

No wonder you resigned at the earliest possible moment. Let Trump and the new NASA Administrator deal with the failures under your watch.

We’ve only spoken a few times, but you seem like a good man. Maybe the current state of NASA has little to do with your lack of leadership and more to do with your boss’s desire to turn NASA into a global warming think tank. Maybe. Maybe not.

Either way, let’s not tear up and talk about the last eight years as being an incredible period in NASA history. It simply wasn’t.


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