charlie bolden meets the press (al jazeera)

Tuesday, July 06, 2010 | |

sunrise at cape canaveral
Sunrise over Cape Canaveral, the Kennedy Space Center (the structure below and just to the right of the sun is Pad 39A, and the square block in the center of the horizon is the Vehicle Assembly Building), and the remnants of Shuttle Discovery's contrail from the launch of STS-131, April 5, 2010

In the past couple of days, NASA administrator Charles Bolden has been hit with a wave of criticism from conservative bloggers and commentators after reports emerged that he said in an interview with Al Jazeera,

When I became the NASA Administrator—before I became the NASA Administrator—[President Obama] charged me with three things: One was he wanted me to help re-inspire children to want 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, math, and engineering.
Here's the video (the question in question begins at 40 seconds):

John Derbyshire said it shows that NASA now serves "the great Obamanian cause of infantilizing and feminizing us." Charles Krauthammer called it "a new height in fatuousness":

And conservative bloggers everywhere are up in arms over it.

This angers me on many levels.

1) It's a continuation of the destructive strategy of political attacks by stripping away context. Some are trying to pretend that Bolden is laying out a grand policy realignment that deemphasizes space exploration when he's clearly talking about outreach initiatives and answering the interviewer's question, "Why are you here [in the Middle East]?"

Now, is outreach to Muslim countries really the "foremost" of the three? Well, maybe, maybe not. And is "help them feel good" really the most artful phrasing he could have used? Ok, definitely not. But perhaps Bolden, given the fact that he was on an outreach mission to the Middle East and speaking to Al Jazeera, was just a bit eager to please; I think we can cut him a little slack here.

2) This is obscuring the fact that NASA does carry soft power—it is surely the program that's generated the most goodwill and support for America since the Marshall Plan—and it can (ought to, even) be wielded through international collaboration. Furthermore, with respect to troubled nations in the Middle East, scientific thinking and research and development is crucial groundwork for a modern economy and society, and NASA can serve as one of our strongest projections of those values. Nurturing science in hostile societies is not easy—we're having quite a time of it even here—but it is one of the most noble things we can do. This is what Bolden means when he says that NASA is "not only a space exploration agency, but also an earth improvement agency."

3) This should never have been a story in the first place—NASA should have been aggressively pushing back on this the minute that conservative bloggers picked this up. The interview was aired last Wednesday, June 30. I first came across the story on Memeorandum two days ago, on the night of July 4, when the lone citation was Powerline Blog. Over the past two days, I've watched in agony as this story has been picked up by the rest of the conservative blogosphere and risen all the way to Fox News. It wasn't until today that NASA offered an official defense:
"Bob Jacobs, NASA's assistant administrator for public affairs, told Fox News on Tuesday that Bolden was speaking of priorities when it came to "outreach" and not about NASA's primary missions of "science, aeronautics and space exploration." Still, he said, "international cooperation and collaboration is important to the future of space exploration." Jacobs said he will let the administrator's comments "speak for themselves," but said it was unfortunate those comments are now being viewed through a "partisan prism."
In a sense, NASA got caught out by the fact that the story hit the mainstream media on July 4th, a Sunday, and then the following Monday was also a federal holiday. But in an age where NASA has over 50 Twitter accounts, could not one person who writes just one of those have put out a 140-character pushback defending Bolden, NASA's soft power, and international collaboration?

4) The target in all of this is not NASA. The target is President Obama's vision for NASA (which is shared by Bolden), which advocates a leaner, more nimble agency by stripping out some of its large development programs in favor of cutting-edge research. The hope is that private space corporations will take up the slack in low earth orbit and even out to the moon, while NASA focuses on a heavy-lift rocket that will take astronauts to the asteroids, Mars, and beyond.

However, this future isn't very appealing to the Congressmen and Senators whose districts and states stand to lose jobs and economic activity when these NASA programs are cut. This, along with what I consider to be a misplaced nostalgia for NASA's golden age as a massive Manhattan Project-type government effort, is serving to prop up the bureaucratic behemoth that NASA has become—a space-industrial complex—and Bolden's comments are giving fuel to the critics that are trying to prevent the very transformation that he is trying to effect.