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Charles Bolden, NASA's first Black administrator, speaks out on systemic racism

NASA's first and (so far) only Black administrator says he is angry and hopeful as he reflects on the world today. 

Charles "Charlie" Bolden, a former astronaut who served as NASA administrator from 2009 to 2017, is "on a constant roller coaster of being very angry and then being hopeful," he told Space.com. Bolden recently spoke to Space.com about not only his experiences as an African-American man who has helped lead the world in space exploration, but also about how he feels about racism and violence against people of color today and how he hopes that agencies like NASA and people everywhere might act to better work against systemic racism.

That racism is nothing new, he emphasized. "The systemic problem with racism in the United States is not something that started this year or last year or 10 years ago," Bolden told Space.com. "This is what our nation was founded on."

Related: NASA's SpaceX launch is not the cure for racial injustice on Earth

Bolden has faced discrimination since his earliest days as a young man. In 1968, Bolden first graduated from the Naval Academy. (He's a retired major general in the U.S. Marine Corps.) But, as he shared in a 2016 interview with NPR, he almost didn't make it into the academy simply because he was black. 

And, while decades have passed since this time, some things, unfortunately, remain the same. Just as the civil rights movement and protests against racism went on during the '60s, the fight against racial injustice, police brutality and violence against marginalized groups continues on still today. 

During the '60s, these struggles plagued the nation at the same time NASA aimed to land a human on the moon, and such issues are again juxtaposed against feats in human spaceflight. This time, the most notable space development has been SpaceX's successful crewed Demo-2 launch to the International Space Station, the first time NASA astronauts have launched from Florida since 2011.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, standing in front of an Orion mockup, speaks at an event at NASA's Johnson Space Center on Aug. 20, 2013.  (Image credit: NASA)

But, as Bolden explained, achievements in spaceflight have never erased the struggles of marginalized communities. "There were a lot of people who had hoped that that would be some unifying force that would cause things to get better all of a sudden," Bolden said about Demo-2. "But I always remind them they didn't get better after Apollo." 

The situation brought to mind a protest sign he saw recently that read, "the system isn't broken, this is the system," Bolden said. "We are a nation that that has discriminated against people from the very beginning," he added. 

"I don't have any stories that are any different from anybody else's," Bolden said. "Being a Black man in America means that every single day I go through what all of us do, and I could walk out of my apartment right here in Crystal City, Virginia [just outside Washington, D.C.]… and I could have the same thing happen to me that happened to George Floyd. That's just a fact of life." On May 25, Floyd, a Minneapolis resident, was killed when the now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd's neck. Chauvin was arrested and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter on May 29. 

Related: Women of color in astronomy face greater degree of discrimination, harassment

What can be done

While Bolden said, "I try not to give anybody advice," he still had a few words of wisdom for NASA on how the agency can improve its support of members of marginalized groups but also how people everywhere can fight against racism. 

He noted that when he was the NASA administrator, issues surrounding diversity and inclusion were very important to him. Bolden said that, in his role, he formed a diversity and inclusion council at the agency and asked senior leaders to step up to actively support diversity.

But those efforts aren't enough, he emphasized. 

"We don't have enough representation in the astronaut office, by women and minorities," Bolden, a former astronaut himself, said. "We have to have more representation … We've not had an African-American crewmember on the International Space Station, and that is long, long, long, long, long, long, long overdue." The space station has been in orbit around Earth for 20 years as of this year. Astronaut Victor Glover will become the first Black crewmember of an ISS expedition crew when he launches on a SpaceX African-American Dragon later this year, though Black astronauts have visited the station as part of shuttle crews.

But, Bolden said, it's not just major agencies like NASA that have to do more to support marginalized groups of people. It's important for people of color and people who are part of minority groups to speak out, he said, but most important for those in the majority — for White people — to speak out. 

"When we look in the mirror, we're looking at something we don't like. Well, that is the nation that we are, and it's up to every single one of us to change it," Bolden said. "So I call on my White brothers and sisters and tell them: Everything you want me to say or you like [retired Black astronauts] Leland [Melvin] or Mae [Jemison] saying, you ought to be saying it."

Bolden added a note of optimism about the younger generations. 

"My hope is that young people will cause us to go much farther than we've gone in the past so that we can actually solve some of these problems."

Email Chelsea Gohd at cgohd@space.com or follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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