'If you want to do it, you can get there'

It's a long way from segregation to space, but it's not impossible.

Joseph Lee talks to veteran astronaut Charlie Bolden

Ehen charles Bolden was growing up in South Carolina, segregation laws meant he could not travel in the same trams as white people. By the time he was 40, he was travelling in the space shuttle, looking down on Earth from 200 miles away.

During eight years as an astronaut, he logged over 680 hours in space, helped to deploy the Hubble space telescope and commanded the first joint shuttle mission with Russia after the cold war.

Students at Newham College, in east London, the most ethnically diverse part of Britain, heard his story this week as part of efforts by the International Space School Education Trust to spark interest in science and engineering.

Major General Bolden (retired), a science graduate who was a US Marine and Navy test pilot before joining Nasa, said: "I think people are trying to help minorities in education. But we've got to face up to engaging families, engaging parents. Until a kid knows he can't get away with having cursed the teacher, they're never going to learn. The education system can't do it all by itself.

"Lots of parents themselves lack education. But most parents want to do the right thing. They just haven't been taught to feel like they're part of the solution."

Major General Bolden, 60, was the son of a school teacher and a librarian.

He attributes his success to their strict discipline.

"They were watching me all day, every day. If I got into trouble at school, I was in trouble at home," he said.

He recalled one time when he talked back to a teacher. It earned him a double dose of corporal punishment from his father: once at school in the guise of teacher and again when he got home. "I never did that again," he said.

His parents were inspirational as well as being disciplinarians, he said.

"There was still segregation in the South. There are all kinds of reasons not to do things, but my parents never let me believe that. I was constantly encouraged: they always said if you want to do it, you can get there."

He said that, despite the segregation laws, the teachers were excellent and dedicated, and perhaps better than inexperienced staff at many schools serving mostly black areas today.

After graduating from high school, he joined the US Naval Academy before starting active service with the Marine Corps as a pilot, flying more than 100 sorties during the Vietnam War.

In 1979, he became a test pilot, and initially refused to apply to become one of the first space shuttle crew. "I didn't want to fail," he said.

Eventually, friends who became the first shuttle pilots persuaded him to apply to Nasa, giving him the kind of encouragement that many black students need, he said.

He was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1980 and spent 680 hours in space over four missions, in 1986, 1990, 1992 and 1994.

The space programme helped Major General Bolden overcome his prejudices, too. He was opposed to the mission with Russia in 1994, maintaining his military hostility to the former enemy: it was a mistake, he now admits.

His test pilot experience, having been expected to push aircraft to their limit - and possibly beyond - meant he had no fear of going into space, he said. His first flight took place just 10 days before the Challenger disaster.

"When you lift off, it's really gentle, except for the vibration, he said.

"It's about 1.5g, which just feels like being a teenager setting off from a stop sign when you get pushed back into your seat.

"Then, in eight-and-a-half minutes, you're in space, the main engine cuts out and it gets very, very quiet.

"What strikes you about the Earth, seen from space, is how magnificent and orderly it is. At 17,500mph, it takes just an hour and you've been around the Earth.

"When you're in darkness, there are a gazillion stars like bright points of light. Earth looks so peaceful and serene. I don't think that feeling ever leaves you."

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