A 1968 graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he became a Marine Aviator and test pilot. After his service as an astronaut, he became Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy.
On May 23, 2009, President Barack Obama announced the nomination of Bolden as NASA Administrator and Lori Garver as Deputy NASA Administrator. Bolden was confirmed by the Senate on July 15, 2009. He was the first African American to head the agency on a permanent basis.
On January 12, 2017, Bolden announced his resignation from NASA during a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. His last day would be January 19, and Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. was announced as acting NASA Administrator.
Bolden graduated from C. A. Johnson High School in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1964. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Science from the United States Naval Academy in 1968, where he was a contemporary of future Marine officers Oliver North, Jim Webb and Michael Hagee and future Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen, and a Master of Science degree in Systems Management from the University of Southern California in 1977. He is a member of Omega Psi Phi fraternity.
Bolden delivered the commencement address for the 153rd graduating class at the University of Arizona in 2017.
In high school, Bolden says that because he is black, he was turned down for an appointment to the United States Naval Academy by South Carolina's delegation in Congress, including Senator Strom Thurmond, at the time a segregationist. Bolden received his appointment with the help of initiatives by President Johnson and William L. Dawson, a U.S. representative from Chicago, Illinois, and would receive letters of congratulations from Thurmond at various career milestones. Bolden was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps following graduation from the United States Naval Academy in 1968. He was president of his class. He underwent flight training at Pensacola, Florida, Meridian, Mississippi, and Kingsville, Texas, before being designated a Naval Aviator in May 1970.
He flew more than 100 sorties into North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in the A-6A Intruder while assigned to VMA(AW)-533 at Royal Thai Air Base Nam Phong, Thailand, from June 1972 to June 1973.
Upon returning to the United States, Bolden began a two-year tour as a Marine Corps officer selection and recruiting officer in Los Angeles, California, followed by three years in various assignments at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California.
In June 1979, he graduated from the United States Naval Test Pilot School at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland and was assigned to the Naval Air Test Center's Systems Engineering and Strike Aircraft Test Directorates. While there, he served as an ordnance test pilot and flew numerous test projects in the A-6E, EA-6B, and A-7C/E airplanes. He logged more than 6,000 hours flying time.
Bolden was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA in 1980. He was a member of the NASA Astronaut Corps until 1994 when he returned to assignments in the Marine Corps, first as the Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the Naval Academy, effective June 27, 1994. In July 1997, he was assigned as the Deputy Commanding General of I Marine Expeditionary Force. From February to June 1998, he served as Commanding General, I MEF (Forward) in support of Operation Desert Thunder in Kuwait. In July 1998, he was promoted to his final rank of major general and assumed his duties as the Deputy Commander, United States Forces Japan. He then served as the Commanding General, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, from August 9, 2000 until August 2002. He retired from the military in August 2004.
Selected by NASA in May 1980, Bolden became an astronaut in August 1981. His technical assignments included: Astronaut Office Safety Officer; Technical Assistant to the Director of Flight Crew Operations; Special Assistant to the Director of the Johnson Space Center; Astronaut Office Liaison to the Safety, Reliability and Quality Assurance Directorates of the Marshall Space Flight Center and the Kennedy Space Center; Chief of the Safety Division at JSC; Lead Astronaut for Vehicle Test and Checkout at the Kennedy Space Center; and Assistant Deputy Administrator, NASA Headquarters.
A veteran of four space flights, he has logged over 680 hours in space. Bolden served as pilot on STS-61-C (January 12–18, 1986) and STS-31 (April 24–29, 1990), and was the mission commander on STS-45 (March 24, 1992 – April 2, 1992), and STS-60 (February 3–11, 1994).
Bolden was the first person to ride the Launch Complex 39 slidewire baskets which enable rapid escape from a Space Shuttle on the launch pad. The need for a human test was determined following a launch abort on STS-41-D where controllers were afraid to order the crew to use the untested escape system.
A few years before his appointment by President Barack Obama to be administrator of NASA, Bolden auditioned, along with professional actors, for the role of virtual host for NASA's "Shuttle Launch Experience" educational attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida.
On Jan 12, 2017, Bolden announced his resignation from NASA during a Town Hall meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington D.C. His last day would be January 19, and Robert M. Lightfoot Jr. was announced as acting NASA Administrator.
On STS-61-C, Bolden piloted Space Shuttle Columbia. During the six-day flight, crew members deployed the SATCOM Ku band satellite, and conducted experiments in astrophysics and materials processing. The mission launched from Kennedy Space Center on January 12, 1986, orbited the Earth 96 times, and ended with a successful night landing at Edwards Air Force Base, California on January 18, 1986.
Bolden piloted Space Shuttle Discovery during STS-31. Launched on April 24, 1990 from Kennedy Space Center, the crew spent the five-day mission deploying the Hubble Space Telescope and conducting a variety of middeck experiments. They also used a variety of cameras, including both the IMAX in cabin and cargo bay cameras, for Earth observations from their record-setting altitude of over 400 miles. Following 75 orbits of Earth in 121 hours, Discovery landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 29, 1990.
On STS-45, Bolden commanded a crew of seven aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, launched on March 24, 1992 from Kennedy Space Center. STS-45 was the first Spacelab mission dedicated to NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth". During the nine-day mission, the crew operated the twelve experiments that constituted the ATLAS-1 (Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science) cargo. ATLAS-1 obtained detailed measurements of atmospheric chemical and physical properties. In addition, this was the first time an artificial beam of electrons was used to stimulate an auroral discharge. Following 143 orbits of Earth, Atlantis landed at Kennedy Space Center on April 2, 1992.
Bolden commanded STS-60's crew of six aboard Discovery. This was the historic first joint-American/Russian Space Shuttle mission involving the participation of a Russian cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, as a Mission Specialist. The flight launched on February 3, 1994 from Kennedy Space Center, and carried the Space Habitation Module-2 (SPACEHAB), and the Wake Shield Facility. The crew conducted a series of joint American/Russian science activities. The mission achieved 130 orbits of the Earth, ending with a landing on February 11, 1994, at the Kennedy Space Center.
In 2009, President Obama appointed Bolden to be administrator of NASA.
In a NASA video published April 28, 2010, titled "NASA's New Era of Innovation and Discovery ... We're gonna turn science fiction into science fact", Bolden said.
That same day, at a question and answer session with employees at the Johnson Space Center, Bolden compared the Constellation Program to a stillborn baby calf extracted from a camel's womb by U.S. Marines, saying "We do the same thing. We’ve got some stillborn calves around, and we have got to figure out ways to help each other bring them back to life."
In a June 2010 interview with Al Jazeera, Bolden said that the top three goals he was tasked with by President Obama were to help re-inspire children to want to get into science and math, to expand NASA's international relationships, and, "perhaps foremost", "to reach out to the Muslim world... to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science... and math and engineering".
Bolden said his agency's long-term ambition is landing astronauts on Mars. He has cited spending cuts as a concern for major NASA projects.
On August 28, 2012, he was the first human being to have his voice broadcast on the surface of Mars. Although the rover has no speakers, it received the transmission of his voice and then beamed it back to Earth.
In 2013 he noted the National Aerospace Week as NASA administrator.
On October 28, 2015, Bolden presented the next steps for a human journey to Mars at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C..
Bolden lives in Houston, Texas, and is married to Alexis (Jackie) (née Walker); the couple has two children: Anthony Che and Kelly Michelle.
Bolden is Christian, noting such in a 'Question and Answers' session held in May 2010 where he stated:
"You know, the universe is a big place. I'm a practicing Christian, so in my faith, I learn about omnipotent, omnipresent God, which means he's everywhere. He's all-knowing. He does everything. And I just cannot bring my little pea brain to believe that a God like that would pick one planet of one of millions of suns and say that's the only place in the vast universe that I'm going to put any kind of life. And so the problem is I haven't been far enough away."
Bolden's military awards include:
Bolden has received:an Honorary Doctor of Science Degree from the University of South Carolina (1984)
an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Winthrop College (1986)
University of Southern California's Alumni Award of Merit (1989)
an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Johnson C. Smith University (1990)
an Honorary Doctor of Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (2008)
an Honorary Doctor of Laws from Monmouth University (2011)
an Honorary Doctor of Public Service from the University of Maryland University College (2012)
an Honorary Doctor of Engineering from the University of Bristol (2014)
the National Space Trophy (2014)
an Honorary Doctor of Science from Rochester Institute of Technology (2015)
an Honorary Doctor from Bar-Ilan University (2016)
an Honorary Doctor of Science from University of Arizona (2017)