The University of Arizona's rich history in space exploration served as the backdrop for the ceremonial launch of the Class of 2017 at the University's 153rd Commencement in Arizona Stadium.
The UA recognized two key figures in the high-profile OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission while celebrating the achievements of nearly 4,000 graduates who participated in the festivities, which were witnessed by a crowd of about 40,000 on a warm but comfortable Friday night. In her fifth and final Commencement as UA president, Ann Weaver Hart conferred about 6,800 degrees, about two-thirds of them on undergraduates.
Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., who retired in January after nearly eight years as NASA's administrator, and UA planetary sciences professor Dante Lauretta, principal investigator of the OSIRIS-REx mission that launched last September, were accorded special honors. Bolden, the ceremony's keynote speaker, was one of five to receive honorary degrees. Lauretta, who received his undergraduate degree from the UA in 1993, was honored with the Alumni Achievement Award.
The two men have more in common than the $1 billion space mission, which will return a sample from the asteroid Bennu in 2023. Though from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, both worked hard to beat long odds on the road to success — and had mentors en route to push and encourage them.
Bolden, 70, who is African-American, grew up in segregated Columbia, South Carolina, the son of two schoolteachers. Because of his color, he made it to the Naval Academy only after President Lyndon B. Johnson insisted that he receive a congressional appointment to the academy. The work there wasn't easy, and Bolden didn't like his chances of becoming an astronaut after flying 100 combat missions in Southeast Asia. That's when the late Ron McNair, the second African-American to fly in space, who perished in the Challenger explosion of 1986, dared Bolden to reach for the stars.
"He challenged me to not be afraid of challenging myself, to believe what my mom and dad had told me for as long as I can remember: that I could do anything I wanted to do," Bolden told the graduates. "Many of you are blessed to have the same type of people in your lives, and many of them are here with you tonight."
Selected by the astronaut program in 1980, Bolden went into orbit aboard the space shuttle four times in an eight-year span. In 2009, President Barack Obama made him the first African-American to head NASA.
Lauretta, 46, was raised in a single-parent household north of Phoenix and needed a part-time job as a fry cook to make ends meet and stay in college. He excelled at his studies, returning to the UA as a faculty member in 2001. The late Michael Drake saw his potential, taking him under his wing and turning over the OSIRIS-REx mission to him when in failing health — even though Lauretta lacked Drake's confidence that he could handle it.
Lauretta hasn't forgotten, and in the weeks leading up to the launch he readily credited the influence of Drake. Asked if he had a message for the Class of 2017, he didn't hesitate.
"You can really achieve your dreams, and there are people who really want to help you," he said. "I reward initiative — that's one of my main management objectives. The students who take advantage of that do well."
Lauretta said he interacted with Bolden on "all of our major decision points" on OSIRIS-REx and called Bolden "very enthusiastic" about the mission even though his background is in manned flight.
Bolden, whose day at the UA included a tour of the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab and even a meeting with a local ham radio operators club, said the UA's signature slogan has significance.
"There's more to 'Bear Down' than meets the eye," he said. "It's a message to live by."
In her remarks to the graduates at the start of the program, Hart noted that only 20 years had passed between the first woman's flight on the space shuttle and the shuttle's retirement.
"Transitions shift the ground, launching us into the unknown," said Hart, who will take a faculty position at the UA when Dr. Robert C. Robbins officially becomes president on June 1. "This is why I hope you will remember your experience as Wildcats."