TRAVERSE CITY — Charlie Bolden's life has been shaped by nevers.
Growing up as a African American in the segregated South, Bolden never expected to be a U.S. Navy pilot, never intended to become a U.S. Marine, never dreamed of being an astronaut, never thought of going to space.
It wasn't until a conversation with Ron McNair in the late 1970s that those final two nevers became a real option.
If McNair's name rings familiar, it should. He was one of seven crewmembers killed when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean just 73 seconds after liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986.
Bolden met McNair while he was in test pilot school and while McNair was in NASA's astronaut program. They spent a weekend together, and although Bolden was "blown away" by what McNair was telling him, it wasn't enough to motivate Bolden to apply for the program.
But McNair saw something in Bolden — saw untapped potential that he couldn't let go to waste.
"He asked me if I was going to apply for the program," Bolden said. "I looked at him and said, 'Not on your life.' I knew they'd never pick me."
McNair gave Bolden a strange look and followed it with a blunt response.
"He said, 'That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. How do you know if you won't ask?'" Bolden said. "That just hit me like a bullet to the heart. My mom and dad had always said to study really hard, work really hard, ask for what you want and it'll work out. I had forgotten that."
Embarrassed by McNair's words, Bolden put in his application and was nominated by the Marine Corps to NASA and selected to the second group of shuttle astronauts.
Bolden, who went on to become NASA's 12th administrator, hopes to bring the lessons he's learned through that journey to people in northern Michigan. He will be a part of two events on April 3, the first at Traverse City Central High School, with fellow former astronauts Greg Johnson and Jerry Linenger, and the second at Northwestern Michigan College's Milliken Auditorium.
The event at TC Central is free to all area students grades K-12 and begins at 10:10 a.m. in the high school's auditorium, which seats about 530 people.
Linenger, a resident of Suttons Bay, spent nearly five months aboard the Russian space station Mir, surviving the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft. Johnson piloted two space shuttle missions to the International Space Station and now leads the Traverse City-based nonprofit Newton’s Road, which works to advance STEM education and local workforce opportunities.
Johnson said he is very excited to share the stage with Bolden and Linenger.
Johnson met Bolden in the early 1990s when he was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He also never considered being an astronaut, but Bolden paid McNair's words of encouragement forward and told Johnson to apply.
"I did what the man said," Johnson said. "I view his advice as pivotal to my preparation for being competitive to be an astronaut."
Teachers interested in bringing students should contact TC Central teacher John Failor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 231-933-6592 by April 1 with an approximate number of students attending. Failor said he already has more than 200 people interested in going.
"The fact that there will be three people there who've gone to space will be pretty amazing," Failor said. "The astronauts having a conversation and sharing their experiences will be pretty neat. It can be one of those moments for a student that can be pretty inspirational."
Elizabeth Kornexl, an eighth grader at Grand Traverse Academy, considers Linenger one of her personal heroes and has worked with Johnson through the ATLAS Space Explorers student program. Her interest in space exploration was sparked in fifth grade when she read Linenger's book, "Off The Planet," and she's become a staunch advocate for STEM programs in schools.
"I'm kind of partial because that's one of my favorite things; but not only is it really cool, it also teaches kids critical thinking," she said. "It doesn't matter if you're interested in STEM, the problems that you can face in a STEM program causes you to have to think proactively and helps you grow as a person."
Only Bolden is scheduled to speak at the NMC event, which is scheduled for 6 p.m. and is open to all community members. Bolden's appearance is part of the International Affairs Forum lecture circuit. He will present “NASA’s Journey of Discovery: The Future of Space Exploration."
Tickets are $15 and available at the door.
Bolden hopes people leave both events clear on his message.
"Don't ever be afraid of failure. Be risk takers," he said. "Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't do something."