Muslim Outreach? NASA Chief Heads to Saudi Arabia

Just months after NASA Administrator Charles Bolden drew public attention for claiming his “foremost” directive from the Obama White House was increased outreach to the Muslim world, he’s embarked on a trip this weekend to Saudi Arabia.

In early July, Bolden told Al Jazeera network that one of President Obama’s directives for him was “to reach out to the Muslim world and engage with dominantly Muslim nations to help them feel good about their historic contribution to science and engineering.”  Days later, the White House contradicted Bolden’s remarks; Press secretary Robert Gibbs reported that such activities were not among Mr. Bolden’s assigned duties.

A NASA spokesman told Fox News Friday that Bolden’s trip to Saudi Arabia is part of a “multi-country tour.”

A NASA spokesman said the visit is part of a multicountry tour. Administrator Charles Bolden and a delegation of several other NASA officials arrive in Saudi Arabia on Friday following a trip to Prague. From the Middle East, they will head next to Nepal where Bolden will give a keynote address at a climate change conference.

Though Bolden’s comments about Muslim outreach earlier raised concerns that the White House was squeezing him into an out-of-place diplomatic role, NASA spokesman John Yembrick said the trip “was not initiated” by either the White House or the State Department.

“This trip, including the visit to Saudi Arabia, is driven by specific, appropriate agency-level objectives,” he said in an e-mail.

On Bolden’s itinerary this weekend is an aerospace technology conference and a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the shuttle flight STS-51G, a U.S. mission that carried the first Muslim into space.  According to Fox, Bolden may also hold a meeting with King Abdullah during his time in Saudi Arabia.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Bolden makes the trip despite “several top NASA officials” having urged him not to, a likely attempt to avoid re-conjuring criticism from the president’s conservative critics over the changed role for NASA.

At the end of last month, Bolden was publicly reprimanded for violating ethics rules after “inappropriate” communications with a senior Marathon Oil Corp. executive. NASA’s inspector general reported that the 10-minute phone conversation last April was inconsistent with an ethics pledge the Administrator signed when he took office in 2009. Further, the IG said the conversation raised concerns about an appearance of conflicting interests during a time when the space agency was considering an alternative fuels project.