Earth to Conservatives

NASA has always been about diplomacy.

Charles Bolden

Washington, we have a problem.

First, President Barack Obama whittled NASA down to a research center that oversees private space flight. Now he appears to have turned it into a subdivision of the State Department.

On a visit to Cairo last week, NASA chief Charles Bolden gave an interview to Al-Jazeera in which he said that Obama charged him with three missions: to “re-inspire children to want to get into science and math,” to “expand our international relationships,” 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.”

Conservatives were not over the moon. On Fox News, Charles Krauthammer called Bolden’s comments “a new height of fatuousness. NASA was established to get America into space and to keep us there. This idea of ‘to feel good about your past scientific achievements’ is the worst kind of group therapy, psycho-babble, imperial condescension and adolescent diplomacy.” At National Review Online’s The Corner, Victor Davis Hanson questioned whether it’s “really the business of a government scientific agency to produce historical and scientific narratives for political purposes.” Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey argued that “Muslim nations should be insulted by the idea that the US pays NASA to provide them with paternalistic and patronizing validation and self-esteem boosts. And they probably will be.”

Damage control ensued. A NASA spokesman told ABC that Bolden “understands that NASA’s core mission is exploration.” The White House threaded the two themes together, emphasizing that NASA should “engage with the world’s best scientists and engineers as we work together to push the boundaries of exploration,” including outreach to “many Muslim-majority countries.”

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.

Ever since that first trip to the moon, though, NASA has struggled to justify its existence. There’s still the defense justification: The only reason we’re not speaking Russian now is that we didn’t let the Soviets overtake us in space technology. But the real battleground has always been in the troposphere, not the thermosphere. There’s the more benign scientific explanation: NASA pioneered breakthroughs in areas from experimental aircraft to satellite communications. Who knows what it may discover next? But it takes a lot of taxpayer money. There’s also the romantic justification. In 2004, George W. Bush tried to recapture the glory of the 1960s by outlining a vision for astronauts to return to the moon by 2020. *  “Mankind is drawn to the heavens for the same reason we were once drawn into unknown lands and across the open sea,” he said at the time. “We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts the national spirit.” Even Obama invoked President Kennedy’s moon shot during the 2008 campaign as an example of American industriousness. But again, $19 billion is a lot to spend on mechanical poetry.

That leaves the diplomacy justification. 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.

That becomes difficult, of course, when administrations keep whittling away NASA’s annual budget, which now stands at a measly $19 billion—a tiny slice of the Defense Department’s $708 billion allotment. Perhaps the State Department can throw in a few extra billion.

Correction, July 7, 2010: This article originally stated that President Bush launched the Constellation program in 2004. That was the year he outlined his “Vision for Space Exploration.” The Constellation program was authorized in 2005. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.