Science in the Public Interest: 2017 Nierenberg Prize goes to Charles Bolden, Jr.


The Nierenberg Prize is given out annually by Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and the William A. Nierenberg Family to an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to science in the public interest. The prize was “founded” in 2001, a year after the death of William Nierenberg (1919-2000), a renowned national science leader who was also the longest-serving director of SIO (1965-1986).

Nierenberg, a professor at UC Berkeley before coming to SIO, was an expert in several fields of underwater research and warfare, and was known for his work in low-energy nuclear physics. He was the recipient of many honors, worked on The Manhattan Project to develop an atomic bomb, and was the first chairman of NASA’s Advisory Council.

His family, including his widow, son, daughter and grandchildren, set up an endowment to honor his memory and award a prize to recognize a fellow scientist who made a significant contribution to the public good. The first recipient was Edward Osborne Wilson, the world’s leading expert on ants. Other Nierenberg Prize winners have included Walter Cronkite (2002), Jane Goodall (2004), Sir David Attenborough (2005), and La Jolla’s own, J. Craig Venter (2007), who was the first to define the human genome.

2017 Prize Winner:

Charles Frank Bolden, Jr.

This year’s prize went to Major General Charles Frank Bolden, Jr. (USMC retired), a former astronaut and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) chief administrator. Bolden, age 71, was born in 1946 in Columbus, South Carolina. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was a Marine Corps pilot who flew more than 100 combat missions in Vietnam. Bolden spent 34 years in the Corps, including 14 as a member of NASA’s Astronaut Office. He was America’s first African-American astronaut, traveling into space four times aboard the Space Shuttle between 1986 and 1994.

Bolden commanded two of the Shuttle missions and was the pilot on two others. In one mission, Bolden and his crew launched the Hubble Space Telescope, which is now traveling in deep space, sending back pictures that have transformed our view of the universe.

All told, Bolden logged a total of 680 hours in space and was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2006.

Bolden’s work at NASA

Following his career as an astronaut, Bolden became the 12th administrator of NASA during President Barack Obama’s two terms in office. At NASA, Bolden oversaw its transition from 30 years of Space Shuttle missions to a new era of space exploration with the International Space Station, as well as space and aeronautics technological development.

He led NASA in developing a space rocket and Orion spacecraft that will carry astronauts to deep space destinations, such as asteroids and the planet Mars. Under Bolden, NASA sent the Curiosity rover to Mars, launched a space craft to Jupiter, and continued progress toward a 2018 launch of the James Webb Telescope, which will be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Bolden was given the Nierenberg Prize on the evening of Oct. 17, at the Robert Paine Scripps Forum, which is a small SIO auditorium that overlooks La Jolla Shores beach. SIO director Margaret Leinen introduced the event and acknowledged the family of William Nierenberg in attendance, including widow Edith, son Nico, daughter Victoria, and two grandchildren.

Victoria told some amusing stories about her dad, a man she said “was interested and excited about everything.” Then Bolden, who was accompanied by his wife, spoke about “An Instrument of Soft Power: NASA International Cooperation.”

“Wow!” he led off, “I just want to say thank you to the Nierenberg family and Scripps director Margaret Leinen. I must say I was quite intimidated to receive this award because it meant I would have to live up to the reputation of Bill Nierenberg, who was a legend in his field!”

Bolden next saluted the famed SIO oceanographer Walter Munk, now age 100, who was seated in the audience, smiling.

Bolden on Bolden

Bolden called himself “an eternal optimist” who sees his role as, “helping people ponder questions, but not so much answer them. I want to help people address questions such as: Are we alone in the universe? What else is out there? Are there other forms of life in the universe? Are there other habitable planets?”

Bolden also said he wanted to encourage people to recognize our own beautiful planet. “Our planet needs you,” he said. “We need your imagination, your ingenuity, and your cooperation. This is Spaceship Earth and it’s the only one we have, and we must work together to take care of it. But the best, and perhaps most meaningful, view of Earth is from space. We must continue on with space exploration. It is one of the keys to having a better future. We must expand our human presence in the universe.”

Bolden went on to discuss the direction, accomplishments and current projects of NASA. He said that after the Challenger exploded in 1986, NASA changed direction to focus on the Space Station, technology development, public/private, and international cooperation.

“We have 17 years of human habitation on the International Space Station, 250 miles up into space. Astronauts from many different countries have lived and worked there successfully,” said Bolden. He further mentioned Juno, a satellite that is completely powered by solar energy, and Osiris Rex “a project where we will send a space ship to orbit the asteroid Benuit. The space ship will eventually descend to the surface of the asteroid and without actually landing, extract a soil sample. Then we will have soil material that came from outside our solar system!”

Regarding the James Webb Space Telescope, he said, “it will travel a million miles away from Earth and undoubtedly transform our view of the universe, much like the Hubble Telescope has.”

As for the mission to Mars, Bolden said, “President Obama challenged NASA to get to Mars. I’m confident we can do it. I see humans living and working on Mars. Mars will be our stepping stone to the rest of the universe. My hope is that we will eventually find signs of life or habitable planets out there.”

He concluded his talk with a challenge to young scientists. “I especially want to encourage the young people in the audience to study hard, work hard and not be afraid of failure. You are the ones who will take us into our future.”