Charlie Bolden was already there when I climbed the hill to Section 3 at Arlington National Cemetery. We gathered there along with astronaut families and NASA brass to mark another anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire. (NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance also observes the 1986 Challenger and 2003 Columbia disasters.)
Retired Marine Corps Major Gen. Charles Bolden Jr. seldom missed a wreath-laying ceremony while serving for eight years as NASA administrator. Bolden didn’t have to make the trip up the George Washington Parkway to Arlington on this finger-freezing late January day. He came anyway for the same reason we all did: To honor the sacrifices of Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee, Edward White (buried at West Point) and the doomed shuttle crews.
Bolden and his wife Alexis (Jackie) arrived ahead of two busloads of dignitaries who had stopped first to lay wreaths at the memorials to the shuttle astronauts. A NASA photographer introduced us, and I mentioned to Bolden I had written a biography of Gus Grissom.
Retired from public service, the former astronaut also is thinking about writing books. He has a story to tell: Along with running the space agency during a transition from the space shuttle to a nascent commercial space industry, Bolden commanded two shuttle missions and flew four times in space, logging more than 680 hours in orbit. Among his many accomplishments was deploying the Hubble Space Telescope.
Like Gus Grissom during the Korean War, Bolden flew 100 combat missions over Vietnam.
As we waited near the head stones of Grissom and Chaffee, we talked about books and publishing. He asked whether I had interviewed the recently departed John Young, the only astronaut to fly in space with Grissom. (I didn’t, but relied heavily on Young’s 2013 memoir, Forever Young, written with James Hansen, the biographer of Neil Armstrong.)
The Apollo ceremony was delayed. The wind continued to howl across the rise that is Section 3. Bolden warmed to the subject of the intrepid yet inscrutable John Young, the astronaut’s astronaut (a sobriquet often used to describe Young’s mentor, Gus Grissom).
Young, who went on to head the Astronaut Office, was remembered for often looking at his shoes when he spoke. On one memorable occasion, he lifted his gaze and looked Bolden square in the eye, a day the astronaut in training never forgot.
Bolden was flying Deke’s Slayton’s T-38 from Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral to Ellington Air Force Base outside Houston. It was a straight shot over Florida and the Gulf of Mexico. The trainer is known to be a gas hog at low altitude, and Bolden recalled controllers at Patrick hesitating to allow him to climb to cruising altitude.
The fuel gauge moved rapidly to the left.
Bolden thought about diverting, then convinced him self he could make it. As he approached Ellington, the pilot realized it would be close, very close. He declared an emergency and hightailed it to the east-west runway at Ellington. There was about a gallon of fuel in the tank when he rolled to a stop.
Gas consumption was closely monitored at Ellington. Bolden was told to report to John Young’s office. This day, the normally taciturn Young raised his steely eyes while dressing down the future astronaut. Glaring at the rookie, the astronaut boss warned in so many words, If you do that again your ass will be out of here!
Charlie Bolden got the message. He forged a distinguished career as an aviator and astronaut, and then guided the space agency through a rocky transition toward what many hope will be a new era of solar exploration.
As the dapper Bolden recalled Young’s anger—or was it a “teachable moment?”—I couldn’t help thinking how much Gus Grissom, the hot refueling champion at the Apollo astronauts’ El Paso “turnaround” filling station, would have relished this war story.
Bolden, like the rest of us, showed up on a windswept winter’s day to again honor his astronaut comrades. He did so because those who have survived to share stories of the Space Age understand they could not have done it without the pioneers buried at our feet.
 Walter Cunningham, (The All-American Boys, New York, iBooks), 2004), 87.