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Sunday, July 11, 2010
Reagan Doesn't Get NASA's Diplomacy Mission
Topic: Newsmax

Michael Reagan writes in his July 9 Newsmax column:

NASA administrator Charles Bolden recently told Al Jazeera English that President Obama "wanted me to find a way to reach out to the Muslim world and engage much more with the dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and math and engineering."

After hearing this statement, my deepest fears about the dangerous priorities being put forth by this administration were confirmed.

Could someone please explain to the hard-working men and women of NASA, or, even more importantly to us as taxpayers who fund the agency, why the leader of that organization is being asked to essentially serve as a diplomat?

Where in NASA's mission statement does it discuss the role of the agency in making nations "feel good"?

With such an egregious misuse of resources, personnel and priorities, I hardly know where to start.

But as Slate's Christopher Beam points out, NASA has always had a diplomacy mission:

Bolden chose his words poorly when he said the goal was to make Muslim nations "feel good." But his statement revealed a truth about NASA that's rarely articulated by public officials: One of its main missions is now—and always has been—public relations.

When NASA was first created in 1958, it served several purposes. The United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a Cold War, so the space race was partly about defense—whoever controlled the skies controlled the world. But it was also symbolic: Landing on the moon before the Soviets represented the triumph of American technology and innovation. It was also an opportunity for the United States to win fans across the globe. There's a reason Neil Armstrong didn't call the moon landing one giant leap for the United States of America.


The Shuttle-Mir Program, a U.S.-Russia collaboration announced in 1993, fostered good relations between former rivals. The International Space Station was another opportunity for cooperation with Russia, Japan, and the European Space Agency. Obama puts even more emphasis on international relations. An administration report on national space policy released last week promises that exploration projects will help "all nations and peoples—space-faring and space-benefiting." It also assures allies that "there shall be no national claims of sovereignty over outer space or any celestial bodies." In more concrete terms, the administration's current plans for human space travel—a stop by an asteroid by 2025, followed by an eventual (and still very hypothetical) trip to Mars—would likely include other nations, and U.S. officials have reportedly reached out to China about joint space efforts.

In context, using NASA to reach out to the Muslim world doesn't sound all that crazy. Bolden may have put that goal in patronizing terms. But the core idea—that space efforts represent an opportunity for cooperation with countries in the Middle East—is a compelling one. Iran has a space program, as do Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. Inviting them to join the International Space Station or to collaborate on bilateral projects would be win-win.

Reagan also claims that "this story is also going to fuel the rumors that abound when it comes to the president and affinity for and preferential treatment of the Islamic world." So if Reagan knows the rumors are false, what, if anything, is Reagan doing to debunk them? Nothing, we suspect.

Posted by Terry K. at 1:37 AM EDT

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