Thursday, July 15, 2010

NASA Outreach: The New Tool for Diplomatic Relations

NASA—the National Aeronautics and Space Administration—has seemed to divert their telescopes elsewhere. Rather than focusing on issues pertaining to space and the exploration of it, as one would naturally expect a space administration to do, NASA chief Charles Bolden announced that they would focus on outreach to the Muslim world as NASA’s “foremost” priority—which Bolden explains as a direct request of President Obama’s administration. This shift in focus is odd at best, and how it will affect the Muslim world is hard to determine, but the reaction of the American public and political analysts is already apparent.

Bolden expanded on the program as a way to promote science and math education: “…he [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 ... and math and engineering.” The initiative seems to have nothing to do with space exploration and Bolden even goes as far as calling it “an Earth improvement agency.”

The use of NASA as a tool for diplomatic relations by the Obama administration does not sit well with some, as evident by various political bloggers and news programs. Concerns include the fact that it seems as though NASA is disregarding space travel and exploration as their primary goal and that NASA is a taxpayer-funded agency—so the use of NASA for earthly goals comes across to the critics as redirecting money away from NASA’s original purpose towards the administration’s policy-related priorities. The other concern may be that this announcement was made via an interview with Al-Jazeera, rather than a source from the American media. But their reactions are almost as irrelevant as the outreach program itself—a point mockingly expressed by political satirist Jon Stewart. Stewart likens the use of NASA to Ronald Reagan’s use of technology for peace-keeping means during the Cold War. Stewart calls the use of NASA “innocuous” and disregards all concerns involving the issue. But the fact of the matter is this program altogether seems unnecessary, the White House does comment that what they mean by this program is the international cooperation towards space exploration and that this involves the collaboration of scientists from all over—including the Muslim world. Charles Bolden’s comments however focus on the Muslim world as the foremost region of concern and are therefore a bit troublesome.

What exactly could this outreaching towards the Muslim world mean for Muslims and politics alike? There is some unease that this may encourage “Muslim-identity politics” and discourage the involvement of countries that don’t consider themselves Muslim-majority. However, the sole purpose of this outreach is to ultimately advance science and the collaboration of the global community. Stewart’s comments, make a point of important pitfalls with the concerns of NASA’s new “mission;” the use of technology for peace has been used before and the involvement of the Muslim world is simply a means to involve all regions of the international community. The acknowledgment of the Muslim world’s historical contribution to science is accurate and is not an issue. Ultimately, it seems as though the outreach program is a way to continue the advancement of science, all the while dealing with the economic problems that may prevent NASA from continuing expensive missions of space exploration.

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