Either the NASA Chief Is Out of His Mind Or The President Is Out of His Mind

by Martin Peretz | July 5, 2010

I suppose there are other cultures than the culture of Islam that are antagonistic to the urgency and agency of science. But different cultures, as Dan Diner writes in Lost in the Sacred: Why the Muslim World Stood Still, "produce different modernities." Not all at the same time, to be sure.

The core moment of the ability to produce and reproduce the attributes of modernity leads us into the prerequisites and requirements for the development of mankind -the political, social, and cultural environment to discover, to create, and to invent.

In the beginning is basic research in the natural sciences--even more than the ability to apply its results--accompanied by the enlightening significance of the humanities and the social sciences in enchanting the world. The production of knowledge, its means, and its consequences are the outcome of the process of secularization and are accelerated by the admittedly overzealous and impatient requirements of the Enlightenment.

So what are the prospects of the sciences in the Muslim world, especially in its Arab sector? Five volumes, written by a team of mostly apologetic intellectuals, "presents a rather bleak diagnosis of the state of the Arab world." "This lamentable situation," depicted in the Arab Human Development Report, "thrown into relief by (its) insistence on mere facts and figures, has evoked again, with unrestrained urgency, the question of modernity and secularization."

"A different way above and beyond the requirements of modernity is still not visible," writes Professor Diner.

Except, mirabili dictu, to the president and his hapless NASA chief.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a recent interview that his "foremost" mission as the head of America's space exploration agency is to improve relations with the Muslim world.

Though international diplomacy would seem well outside NASA's orbit, Bolden said in an interview with Al Jazeera that strengthening those ties was among the top tasks President Obama assigned him. He said better interaction with the Muslim world would ultimately advance space travel.

"When I became the NASA administrator -- or before I became the NASA administrator -- he 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," Bolden said in the interview.

The NASA administrator was in the Middle East last month marking the one-year anniversary since Obama delivered an address to Muslim nations in Cairo. Bolden spoke in June at the American University in Cairo -- in his interview with Al Jazeera, he described space travel as an international collaboration of which Muslim nations must be a part.

"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)," he said. He held up the International Space Station as a model, praising the contributions there from the Russians and the Chinese.

However, Bolden denied the suggestion that he was on a diplomatic mission -- in a distinctly non-diplomatic role.

"Not at all. It's not a diplomatic anything," he said.

He said the United States is not going to travel beyond low-Earth orbit on its own and that no country is going to make it to Mars without international help.

Bolden has faced criticism this year for overseeing the cancellation of the agency's Constellation program, which was building new rockets and spaceships capable of returning astronauts to the moon. Stressing the importance of international cooperation in future missions, Bolden told Al Jazeera that the moon, Mars and asteroids are still planned destinations for NASA.

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