NASA’s Final Frontier

Once upon a time, NASA led America’s great ascent into the final frontier. But in a stunning case of misplaced priorities, the space agency now seems to be primarily concerned with raising Muslim self esteem.

While NASA prepares to send our aging and ailing space shuttles into retirement next year, President Obama has dealt proud Americans and space enthusiasts everywhere a devastating blow by canceling Project Constellation, the program put in place to develop a replacement vehicle. As consolation, the President offered modest funds to develop a new rocket and to encourage private industry to launch space vehicles of their own. However, the paltry allotment can’t hide the brutal truth: The era of America sending astronauts into space is over. Meanwhile, Russia and China remain the only other nations capable of sending humans into orbit.

NASA, the space agency that had accomplished so many firsts after a slow start against the Soviets — the first docking of two spacecraft, the first orbits of the moon and, of course, the world-changing small steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin — is clearly shifting focus under the Obama administration.  But few could have possibly imagined just how much different NASA’s new mission would be. The goal “perhaps foremost” on the President’s mind? Helping Muslims “feel good” about themselves.

So says Charles Bolden, a former astronaut and Obama’s NASA administrator. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Bolden said that he was happy to reach out to the Muslim world on the anniversary of the President’s Cairo speech. When asked by interviewer what the President’s goals for NASA were in the post-shuttle era, Bolden identified three things as presidential priorities. The first was getting American schoolchildren excited about the possibilities offered by math and science, certainly a laudable goal. The next was forging international partnerships, and that too is a logical and worthwhile mission for NASA — public outreach across the globe has long been an unofficial NASA function, and the agency has always worked extremely closely with European, Japanese and Canadian allies to advance science and Western security (and even cooperated with the Soviets in some largely symbolic displays of détente).

And the third priority, the one Bolden identified as the one the President took most seriously?

“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.”

That’s a strange mission for an American federal agency tasked with explaining the mysteries of the universe and expanding the frontiers of human knowledge through observation and exploration. Now that NASA will soon be getting out of the business of designing and launching spacecraft, is it to become the world’s biggest motivational workshop, boldly complimenting a billion people like they’ve never been complimented before so that they feel better about their own history?

It is difficult to fathom that this could truly be what the President feels NASA should focus on. Indeed, if such a thing had been suggested by a talk radio host or a right-wing blogger, many would have collectively rolled their eyes at yet another fringe conservative conspiracy, out to paint Obama as somehow anti-American, an internationalist more interested in making friends abroad than leading at home. It would almost have been too crazy an idea to believe, playing so closely into the stereotypical narrative of Obama as somehow disbelieving in America’s greatness, pursuing a new beginning with Islam at any cost. Too difficult to believe, that is, had the director of NASA not plainly said so himself, on camera and on the record.

NASA, with a budget of $18-billion and 17,000 employees, will continue to operate telescopes, launch satellites and operate robotic probes that will provide useful information to Earth-based scientists as to the nature of our solar system. It will also remain a nexus of high-tech expertise and technological development. Hopefully, one day, breakthroughs will make exploration of the solar system and perhaps even the distant stars so cheap that America will return to space. In the meantime, it will be left to other countries, and perhaps one day, private companies, to venture into outer space while NASA strives to somehow improve the self-esteem of a sixth of the world’s population.

This makes the loss of NASA’s manned exploration programs even more painful to endure. Had the President made the decision to cancel Constellation and give up on American exploration of our solar system for reasons of fiscal austerity, that would have been easier to accept. Indeed, it would have been a moment steeped in pathos — a great nation that had once dared to reach for the stars brought down by its own reckless spending. It would have been a lesson equally damaging to both political parties and could even have been a symbol of why America must rein in its deficits — having already lost space, what else could be allowed to slip away?

But instead, one of America’s great symbols of national power and prestige is being co-opted to serve this administration’s burning desire to win the affection of the Muslim world. That won’t happen, of course — the notion that Muslims will feel better about their achievements because America tells them they should is preposterous and condescending to the extreme, and now that Bolden has spoken of the plan aloud, anything that NASA does towards the dubious goal of improving the Muslim world’s self-esteem will come across as cynical and ham-fisted.

NASA’s dreams of exploration, and the national prestige they conferred upon America, have been lost. In time, it will be apparent that President Obama’s dreams of a new beginning with the Muslim world are similarly in vain.

Matt Gurney is an editor at the National Post, a Canadian national newspaper, and writes and speaks on military and geopolitical issues. He can be reached at

July 11th, 2010
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