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USNA Notable Graduate: Charles F. Bolden, Jr.

Oct 26, 2022 10:00:00 AM

A four-time space veteran and former Deputy Commandant of the USNA, the Honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr., has distinguished himself as a top tier astronaut, Marine and USNA graduate. Yet there’s even more to his incredible story. 

Charles Frank Bolden, Jr. was born in Columbia, South Carolina, on August 19, 1946. He graduated from C.A. Johnson High School and received an appointment from an Illinois congressman to the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was known as a talented boxer, Glee Club singer, 11th Company Commander, and the president of the Class of 1968. In his time at the U.S. Naval Academy, Bolden worked closely with the Superintendent to increase diversity initiatives and graduated earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical science.

Taking to the Skies as a Test Pilot

Upon graduation, Bolden was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps and became a naval aviator. During the Vietnam War, he was sent overseas and flew more than 100 dangerous combat missions into North and South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in the A-6A Intruder between the years of 1972 and 1973.

After this tour of duty, Bolden returned to the U.S. and worked as a recruiting officer for two years. He earned his master’s degree in systems management from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and then went on to graduate from the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School at Patuxent River, Maryland in June 1979. Tapped as an ordnance test pilot to fly the A-6E, EA-6B and A-7C/E attack aircraft for the Naval Air Test Center’s Systems Engineering and Strike Aircraft Test Directorates, the skies were no limit. As he boosted his aviation skills by logging over 6,000 hours of flight time, Bolden was preparing to ascend to the next frontier. In 1980, he was selected by NASA to train as an astronaut.

Rocketing Past the Stratosphere as An Astronaut

By the following year, Bolden was a trained astronaut. His time with NASA proved extraordinarily productive, and he played large roles in a number of high profile missions. Charles Bolden’s NASA career ultimately included four missions. He piloted the STS-61C mission on the space shuttle Columbia, which launched on January 12, 1986. The crew spent six days in space and launched a communications satellite. Four years later he served as pilot of the STS-31 on the Discovery, which launched on April 24 and ran through April 29, 1990. This was the mission that deployed the long-awaited Hubble Space Telescope, a huge feat for NASA. 

For the next two missions, Bolden served as mission commander. He led the STS-45 (March 24 - April 2, 1992) and helped the crew aboard the Atlantis transport the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science, a small pallet laboratory with twelve experiments examining Earth’s atmosphere. Bolden’s final flight on STS-60 Space Shuttle Discovery (February 3 - 11, 1994) was especially historic, as it was the first to have a Russian cosmonaut on its crew, mission specialist Sergey Krikalyov. All in all, Bolden spent more than 680 hours in space over his fourteen years as an astronaut.

Coming Home to USNA as Deputy Commandant

In 1994, he left NASA and resumed his career with the Marines as Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. Next, he became the Assistant Wing Commander, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in Miramar, California. He then served as Deputy Commanding General, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force and Commanding General, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (FWD) as part of Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait. In July 1998, he was promoted to Major General and took up the responsibilities of Deputy Commander, U.S. Force at Yokota Air Base in Japan. 

When he retired from the Marine Corps in 2002, he was the Commanding General of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California. He then became a senior vice president at Tech Trans International through 2005.

Breaking New Ground in Space as the Administrator of NASA

In 2009, Bolden received another incredible honor. Appointed by President Barack Obama, he made history by becoming the first African American (and second astronaut) administrator of NASA. 

While at NASA, Bolden made many historic contributions. He oversaw the development of the Space Launch System and the Orion Crew Capsule. He shepherded the space program from its space shuttle program, which ended in 2011, to a new model of exploration using private companies to take American astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS). He also spearheaded rocket and spacecraft programs projected to bring astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. 

Bolden also played a large role in several ambitious exploration projects, especially the Curiosity rover, which landed on Mars in 2012 and continues collecting revelatory samples and photos from Mars’ surface to this day. He helped lead the Juno mission that is exploring Jupiter, the New Horizons Mission to Pluto and the effort to add more satellites for Earth observation. He didn’t stop there. With his background as an accomplished aviator, he championed NASA’s aeronautics programs and their mission to build faster, farther traveling, quieter and greener airplanes. 

He also had a large hand in the unfolding James Webb Space Telescope initiative, which launched on December 25, 2021 and has been considered an astounding success, beaming spectacular photos of a galaxy whose light originated more than 13.1 billion years ago. 

Just as noteworthy, while Bolden was at the helm, NASA was ranked the best place to work among large federal agencies for five years in a row—and applications to the astronaut program skyrocketed to an all-time high.

When Obama left the presidency in January 2017, Bolden resigned from NASA, but his contributions didn’t stop there. He continued his work in the private sphere, founding The Charles F. Bolden Group, a veteran-owned small business with expertise in space and aerospace exploration, national security, leadership, education (STEM +AD) and health initiatives. He currently serves as CEO Emeritus.


Among many honors, Bolden has earned the following:

  • The Defense Distinguished Service Medal
  • The Defense Superior Service Medal
  • The Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Air Medal
  • Three NASA Exceptional Service Medals 
  • Four NASA Space Flight Medals
  • The 2014 Rotary National Space Trophy
  • The 2020 Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy 
  • Honorary Doctorate degrees from numerous institutions of higher education  
  • 2006 U.S Astronaut Hall of Fame Induction
  • 2016 National Aviation Hall of Fame Induction
  • 2018 Distinguished Graduate of the USNA
  • 2018-2019 U.S. Department of State Science Envoy for Space 

Among his most prized rewards is his family. Married to Alexis Walker from his hometown of Columbia, South Carolina, the couple has two grown children, including Lieutenant Colonel A. Ché Bolden ’93, USMC, and Dr. Kelly Bolden, MD.

His USMC family is strong too. General Bolden’s special connection to the U.S. Naval Academy was brought full circle when he served as Deputy Commandant of USNA, and it continues to this day. He has given Forrestal Lectures, chairs the annual Astronaut Convocation and serves on the Naval Academy Foundation Board of Directors. 

USNA graduates serve the world in amazing ways. We are grateful to each of them for their tireless devotion to our country’s protection and prosperity. We are proud to give back too—and you can help. When you visit the Yard, take a tour, dine in our restaurants and shop in our stores, you’re giving back to the midshipmen. Every profit goes right back to the Brigade. Thank you!

We are honored to share General Bolden’s story, and excited to see it continue on.

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Bill the Goat
Written by Bill the Goat

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