In the spring of 1961, President Kennedy spoke to Congress about his desire to “win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny.” He told Congress and the nation that “now it is time to take longer strides — time for a great new American enterprise — time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.”
His inspiring conclusion: “I believe we should go to the moon” — though he noted that this would require additional expenditures of money and intellectual resources, and presidents were more serious about budgets in those days. Kennedy said, “It is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. This decision demands a major national commitment of scientific and technical manpower, materiel, and facilities, and the possibility of their diversion from other important activities where they are already thinly spread. It means a degree of dedication, organization and discipline which have not always characterized our research and development efforts. It means we cannot afford undue work stoppages, inflated costs of material or talent, wasteful interagency rivalries, or a high turnover of key personnel. New objectives and new money cannot solve these problems. They could in fact, aggravate them further — unless every scientist, every engineer, every serviceman, every technician, contractor, and civil servant gives his personal pledge that this nation will move forward, with the full speed of freedom, in the exciting adventure of space.”
A half century later, in the age of Obama, that kind of inspirational yet candid communication from Washington is gone. This past week, the current NASA administrator revealed what our current president thinks about space. “When I became the NASA administrator, [Obama] charged me with three things,” NASA head Charles Bolden told al-Jazeera. “One, 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.”
This quote is entirely believable. Mr. Bolden was not told that he must advance American interests in space, but instead to become part of the big Obama program of engagement with the “international community.” His achievements will be measured by whether he can “reach out” to make people “feel good,” and those people aren’t even Americans; no, his “perhaps foremost” job is to make Muslims around the world “feel good” about their past.
A more serious task might be to make them feel terrible about the present level of education in Muslim lands, not least for women and girls, in the hope that we could spur them to reform and improvement. The dismal state of science, math, and engineering in Muslim nations is quite clear, but Mr. Bolden isn’t assigned to improve their performance (which would presumably be the job of USAID, but whatever). No, he’s to be another Dr. Feelgood, a sad assignment for this former astronaut. Mr. Bolden should not be criticized for telling the truth about his job, for the problem is at the top, not at NASA. The space program is being transformed into a tool of Obama foreign policy, which views American national greatness as an anachronism.
– Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.