Think quick: What tasks would the president of the United States charge the head of NASA with performing: Going to Mars? Returning to the moon? Finding a replacement for the Space Shuttle? Enhancing U.S. technology?

Not President Obama. Charles Bolden, who heads up NASA, gave an interview with Al Jazeera and explained how President Obama had described his job:

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.

Apparently NASA also doesn’t want to speak much about America’s engineering prowess; credit goes to everyone else and in a trite way:

If it was not for the presence of the Russians, for example, we would not have the International space station in this form. If it were not for the Japanese and their incredible module, Kibo, that is perhaps the best laboratory module on the International Space Station it wouldn’t be what it is today.

Of course a lot of the problems of NASA he traces back to funding but he also speaks about NASA’s goals in a way that makes one question why Americans would want to be taxed to support the entity:

We do what we do to support, to make like better for, humans on earth. We do what we do to make life better for people no matter where they live.

In any case, spending money in space is sort of silly since the way the NASA administrator describes things the whole effort is really like a giant Boy Scout jamboree:

The International Space Station is an incredible example. Perhaps its best gift to humankind is this United Nations type entity that orbits earth – sixteen times every day – with multiple crew members from multiple nations with components from multiple nations that operates without warfare and rancor. Yeah, we disagree every once in a while but we have a method by which we come to agree on what we are going to do and how we are going to operate. That is perhaps the best gift that the International Space Station gives to the world today.

Bolden really seems to have no sense of national pride. No notion that America is an extraordinary country and that we can do extraordinary things.  Bolden goes on to explain that the U.S. alone could never go to Mars, as if it were just obvious a half century ago that we could go to the moon. He articulates a defeatist vision of America so different from John F. Kennedy speaking at Rice University in 1962:

William Bradford, speaking in 1630 of the founding of the Plymouth Bay Colony, said that all great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage. If this capsule history of our progress teaches us anything, it is that man, in his quest for knowledge and progress, is determined and cannot be deterred. The exploration of space will go ahead, whether we join in it or not, and it is one of the great adventures of all time, and no nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it--we mean to lead it. For the eyes of the world now look into space, to the moon and to the planets beyond, and we have vowed that we shall not see it governed by a hostile flag of conquest, but by a banner of freedom and peace. We have vowed that we shall not see space filled with weapons of mass destruction, but with instruments of knowledge and understanding. Yet the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first. In short, our leadership in science and industry, our hopes for peace and security, our obligations to ourselves as well as others, all require us to make this effort, to solve these mysteries, to solve them for the good of all men, and to become the world's leading space-faring nation. We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say that we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours. There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation may never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon... (interrupted by applause) we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

President Kennedy understood that yearnings for peace are like nothing compared to leadership and that leadership is impossible without achievement and achievement impossible without commitment. As he put it, “the vows of this Nation can only be fulfilled if we in this Nation are first, and, therefore, we intend to be first.” 

One listens to this interview and remembering this is the United States of America we are talking about, one is tempted to say the piece is an absolutely nutty story, one wants to say it is ridiculous, even bizarre, a fraud.

Then one realizes it is real, it is where we have traveled in the last 48 years, and one shudders.

You can watch the whole interview here: