Have you heard? President Obama has turned NASA into one big self-esteem booster for the Muslim world. At least that’s what conservative commentators — who say they have proof Obama is ordering NASA to boldly go to the Middle East and make Muslims feel better about themselves — are saying today.
At issue is an interview NASA administrator Charles Bolden gave to Al Jazeera while on a trip to Quatar recently. The interview came as Bolden was in the Middle East to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Obama’s Cairo speech, where he called for renewed ties between the U.S. and Muslim nations around the world. Bolden renewed the message of the speech, and said that NASA will be a part of forging the new path, thanks to a new focus on international engagement included in the Obama administration’s space policy guidelines released last month.
NASA says Bolden’s comments are no big deal, and merely represent Bolden’s attempt to reach out to his local audience. But right-wing commentators say the interview is a sign that the only booster rockets NASA will be developing under Obama are the ones that lift Muslim spirits.
Bolden’s comments show “Obama’s lack of interest in American achievement or, indeed, American greatness,” Paul Mirengoff at the Powerline blog wrote. They reflect “Obama foreign policy, which views American national greatness as an anachronism,” wrote Elliot Abrams wrote at the National Review. “Group and identity politics at its worst,” Lou Dobbs said.
So, what did Bolden really say?
“[In the 2009 speech, Obama] announced he really wanted this to be a new beginning of the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world,” Bolden told an Al Jazeera English reporter when asked why he was in the Middle East giving speeches. “When I became NASA administrator…[Obama] charged me with three things: one was he wanted me to help reinspire children to get into science and math, he wanted me to expand our international relationships, and third, and perhaps foremost, he wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with dominantly Muslim nations, to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering.”
“It’s not a diplomatic anything,” Bolden added. “What it is is — it’s trying to expand our outreach so that we get more people that can contribute to the things we do…there is much to be gained by drawing in the possibilities that are possible from Muslim nations.”
Bolden suggested the idea was modeled on the existing International Space Station, which NASA constructed with modules built by countries like Russia and Japan.
(Watch the whole Al Jazeera interview here.)
Over the weekend, right wing blogs jumped on the interview.
“This is more evidence, if any were needed, of Obama’s lack of interest in American achievement or, indeed, American greatness,” Mirengoff wrote. “He seems to believe we’ve achieved enough (or perhaps too much) and that the trick now is to make nations that have achieved little for centuries feel like we couldn’t have done it without them.”
“Mr. Bolden should not be criticized for telling the truth about his job, for the problem is at the top, not at NASA,” Abrams wrote at the National Review. “The space program is being transformed into a tool of Obama foreign policy, which views American national greatness as an anachronism.”
By today, the story had become worthy of the full-on Fox News treatment. Lou Dobbs, who is a, you know, expert on both space and international relations, said the Al Jazeera interview means Bolden is “leading a sensitivity session as the administrator of NASA.”
“This is group and identity politics at its worst,” Dobbs said. “You don’t have to be a space expert to know this is madness.” Watch:
The White House did not respond to my request for comment on the allegations that Obama’s new plan for NASA put going into space behind making Muslims feel better (note: see Late Update below for the White House’s take.) But NASA spokesperson Bob Jacobs told me that any suggestion that Bolden was describing a new mission for NASA in the interview was false. NASA will still spend its time exploring the cosmos and advancing aeronautics, he told me.
“I think unfortunately this has gotten caught up in some political rhetoric,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said he is “not aware” of any “specific efforts” to include Middle Eastern know-how in future space projects “at this point” — but said that since the Muslim world is “part of the international community,” it made sense that Bolden would refer to the area when discussing the administration’s plans to leverage international cooperation for the future of the space program.
“The interview took place in Qatar,” Jacobs said. “I don’t think it would be strange that he would make a specific reference to a local audience in his remarks.”
White House spokesperson Nick Shapiro writes in with this response to fear on the right that Obama’s NASA is in charge of Muslim esteem rather than reaching for the stars. Shapiro said that Obama has “has always said that he wants NASA to engage with the world’s best scientists and engineers as we work together to push the boundaries of exploration.”
“Meeting that mandate requires NASA to partner with countries around the world like Russia and Japan, as well as collaboration with Israel and with many Muslim-majority countries,” Shaprio said. “The space race began as a global competition, but, today, it is a global collaboration.”