NASA's typically background role as a force in international diplomacy suddenly jumped to the foreground when NASA administrator Charles Bolden told Al Jazeera Television that President Obama had directed him to help improve U.S. relations with Muslim nations.
In a July 2 interview, Bolden told Al Jazeera's Imran Garda that when he took over at NASA, Obama had directed him 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 math and engineering."
Citing substantial contributions to the International Space Station by Russia and China as an example, Bolden added, "It is a matter of trying to reach out and get the best of all worlds, if you will, and there is much to be gained by drawing in the contributions that are possible from the Muslim (nations)."
Bolden Denies Diplomatic Intent: Observing that no single nation, including the United States, would ever be able to travel beyond low-earth orbit or go to Mars without the help of other nations, administrator Bolden denied that diplomacy had driven President Obama's directive for NASA to "reach out" to the Muslim world.
"Not at all. It's not a diplomatic anything," he said.
What Does NASA Have to Gain? Besides scientific and engineering knowledge, several Muslim nations have lots of something NASA does not have as much of as it used to - money.
Just another victim of the recession, NASA has so far suffered a 16 percent cut in its annual budget for manned space exploration, with more cuts probably on the way. The budget cut led to the cancellation of NASA's Constellation program for sending astronauts back to the moon and ultimately to Mars.
In addition, Obama's just released U.S. National Space Policy stresses the necessity of international cooperation in future missions to the moon, Mars and beyond.
"The United States will pursue cooperative activities to the greatest extent practicable in areas including: space science and exploration; Earth observations, climate change research, and the sharing of environmental data; disaster mitigation and relief; and space surveillance for debris monitoring and awareness. -- Fact Sheet: The National Space Policy
Last September, President Obama's blue-ribbon commission on the future of human space flight bleakly reported that NASA simply lacked the money needed to return to the moon, much less go to Mars.
"The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," stated the report. "It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources."