You would be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn't know that the "S" in NASA stands for "Space." Since the race to the moon in the 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been one of the most storied agencies in the U.S. government. Now, under President Obama, its mission is changing -- and space isn't part of the story.
"When I became the NASA administrator, (Obama) charged me with three things," NASA head Charles Bolden said in a recent interview with the Middle Eastern news network 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."
From moon landings to promoting self-esteem: It would be difficult to imagine a more dramatic shift in focus for an agency famous for reaching the heavens. Bolden's words left supporters of space exploration astonished. "Everyone had the same impression: Is this what he is spending his time on?" says a Republican Hill aide who tracks the space program. "A lot of people are very upset about it."
NASA is not getting out of the space business, at least not entirely. But Bolden's words, together with the president's decision to scrap much of NASA's mission and include the agency in the "Cairo Initiative" -- that is, the White House outreach program outlined in Obama's June 4, 2009, Cairo speech to the Muslim world -- show that the NASA of the future will be little like the past.
Obama released his plan for NASA a few months ago, and to many, it seemed a blueprint for disaster. The moon program will be scrapped, replaced by a hazy hope to visit Mars. The space shuttle will die, too, leaving America with no way to put a man in orbit.
Obama's proposal stunned U.S. space heroes Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan -- the first and last men to walk on the moon -- who, along with Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell, made a rare public statement denouncing the plan as a "devastating" scheme that "destines our nation to become one of second- or even third-rate stature."
The president's plan to rely on the Russians to ferry American astronauts to the international space station dismayed even John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth who later became a Democratic senator and Obama supporter. "We're putting ourselves in line for a single-point failure ending the whole manned space program," Glenn said.