When the space shuttle Atlantis blasts off on Friday, it will mark the final NASA shuttle mission ever. But the shuttering of the 30-year-old program isn’t the end of American space exploration–in fact, according to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, it makes way for the creation of new designs that will take us deeper into orbit. In the meantime, the agency will partner with the Russian space program to continue sending American astronauts into space. (At the same time, NASA will aid in the development of a privately run space shuttle industry.)
The Root spoke with Bolden, the first African American to lead NASA, about why he thinks traveling to Mars is critical to the nation, his efforts to recruit more astronauts of color and how the final shuttle mission on Friday may leave him a bit teary-eyed.
TR: This week The Root featured 14 black astronauts who have traveled into space. Are many African Americans coming into the program now, and are there NASA efforts to recruit more astronauts of color?
CB: There is an ongoing effort to recruit more astronauts of color, women and other minorities. That has been ongoing since 1977, when NASA recruited its first group of space shuttle astronauts. Personally, I’m never satisfied with the number that we have; nor do I think we’ll ever have enough. I really want to be able to inspire young people of all races and colors to want to follow in my footsteps and become an astronaut.
One of the things we do is spend significant amounts of our education funding in collaboration with historically black colleges and universities. We have a number of scholarship programs, internship programs and grant programs that go into minority neighborhoods, all the way from middle and high school on up.
We try to use as many of our astronauts as possible who look like kids in some of the minority neighborhoods to talk to them about how they became interested in space, and how they studied and made very diligent efforts to get there. It’s hard to become an astronaut; we don’t want them to be afraid of it, so we try to tell them how much fun we’ve had in getting here.