Sunday, July 11, 2010

Much Ado About Nothing

Meet Prince Sultan ibn Salman al Saud of Saudi Arabia, who flew on the Space Shuttle in 1985 at the invitation of the Reagan administration.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden gave an interview on July 1, 2010 to the English-language version of the Al Jazeera television network. Bolden said President Obama had charged him with reaching out to the Arab world so they can help contribute to the International Space Station and other global spacefaring efforts.

Click here to watch the complete interview on YouTube.

Bolden's remarks generated much outrage — some of it no doubt feigned — on right-wing propaganda outlets and also among those opposed to Obama's FY 2011 proposed NASA budget. Florida Today reported on July 7:

On Fox News Channel, commentator Charles Krauthammer called Bolden's comments "a new height of fatuousness. NASA was established to get America into space and to keep us there. This idea of 'to feel good about your past scientific achievements' is the worst kind of group therapy, psycho-babble, imperial condescension and adolescent diplomacy. If I didn't know that Obama had told him this, I'd demand the firing of Charles Bolden."

Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan went on Fox News and called on Bolden to resign after his Al Jazeera remarks. Cernan is a vocal advocate of Constellation.

Apparently none of these critics have heard of Prince Sultan ibn Salman al Saud.

He was a Saudi Arabian who flew on STS-51G Discovery in June 1985 at the invitation of the Reagan administration.

To quote from a September 19, 1985 Los Angeles Times article:

NASA offered the Arab League the opportunity to fly a payload specialist as part of its policy toward countries and companies doing business with it. The League decided that rather than open a competition among its 22 members, the opportunity would go to Saudi Arabia, Prince Sultan said, because it was the major shareholder.

The quotes about his flight that Prince Sultan gave to the Times sound exactly like what it is that Bolden (and Obama) intend to accomplish today with the Arab world:

He is well aware of the symbolic significance of being the first Arab astronaut. He carried not only a Koran with him on his space voyage, but an astrolabe, the instrument of astronomical computation used in the medieval Islamic world. While he might not feel like the personification of the Islamic renaissance, he knows the comparison is not without meaning.

It is not coincidental that so many of the stars have Arab names, he said, referring to the astronomers, mathematicians and physicists of that earlier time.

"We had our own NASA a long time ago . . . " he said. "We went into a tailspin for a while. Hopefully this will be a revival of that."

Although at least 80% of the population of his strictly Muslim society is conservative, he said, his trip into space and the revival he envisions is ccompatible with Islam ...

"We can see a future role for ourselves in the world. Not to compete, but to contribute."

For all his nationalism, like others who have gone up in space and taken a look at the Earth, the prince described its profound effect on him, and the sense it gave him of a world community.

While still in space he was interviewed and asked how the trouble in the Middle East seemed from up there. He remarked at the time that all the trouble spots of the world seemed the same, and rather small. Perhaps, he said, those who were causing the trouble should come up for a look.

Now, he said, he does not believe in passports and visas and, in fact, almost left Saudi Arabia without his. It seems absurd to him, in particular, that an astronaut should have a passport.

"The first day or two up there, you try to recognize the countries, especially Saudi Arabia. It stands out. It's very distinct. Then, you keep missing the countries and you look only at the continents. By the sixth day, the whole world becomes a beautiful blue and white and yellow painting. Those boundaries really disappear. With me they still are."

An article in the January-February 1986 issue of Saudi Aramco World details all the positive public relations the United States and NASA received as a result of the Saudi prince's flight on Discovery.

The impact of his becoming an astronaut, and the flight into space, Prince Sultan went on, was tremendous, especially on young people in Saudi Arabia. "I think it showed them that space, like the rest of high technology, is not the exclusive hunting ground of the West and that - literally - not even the sky is the limit any more." In addition, he said, the flight had an important effect on Saudi-American friendship. "This flight," he told Charles Wick of the USIS, "had more effect than a million hours of Voice of America broadcasting because it showed our friendship."

The National Aeronautics and Space Act specifically requires NASA to reach out to other nations. One NASA objective, Section 102(d)(7), is:

Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this Act and in the peaceful application of the results thereof.

Seems straightforward enough to me. It was straightforward enough for Reagan.

But apparently it wasn't straightforward enough for Florida Today columnist John Kelly, who wrote in a July 11 article:

If you're concerned about NASA's future, you should be incredibly concerned about Administrator Charlie Bolden's interview on an Arab television network.

If you're passionate about space exploration, you should be fired up about the web- and cable-news furor over Bolden saying improving relations with Muslims is "foremost" among the goals President Barack Obama gave him when he took over NASA.

You should be hopping mad. You should be complaining to elected officials and decision-makers, at NASA headquarters, the White House and Congress. You should demand immediate action to rectify a crisis that threatens to stymie America's space program.

John Kelly, meet Prince Sultan ibn Salman al Saud.

UPDATE July 19, 2010 — Jeff Foust of The Space Review offers this insight into the "Muslim" flap.

... Bolden's statements did catch fire primarily among conservative commentators, who expressed varying degrees of outrage about Bolden's comments. However, they typically did little else, like digging into the issue to see if NASA's actions, beyond the administrator’s comments, matched their rhetoric. If they had, they might have found that such outreach — and controversy — wasn’t new: in a February speech Bolden talked about reaching out to "non-traditional" partners, including "dominantly Muslim countries", although not as the agency’s "foremost" mission. (And lest one think that such outreach is limited to the current administration, recall that a quarter-century ago a Saudi prince flew as a payload specialist on a shuttle flight.) Moreover, NASA's budget proposals and other actions provide scant evidence that the agency is reorienting to make outreach to Muslim nations a major priority, let alone its "foremost" one.


  1. Consider your 'space geek' membership card suspended for gross historical revisionism. This is the most preposterous faux-analogy I've yet seen by the apologistics camp on this kerfluffle.

    Fact: All paying customers using the STS for PAM and bigger kick stages (like Syncom) were allowed ONE specialist to accompany the payload to orbit. It was a standard equal-opportunity deal.

    It was not -- and never portrayed as -- a special outreach to any particular cultural or national or corporate entity. There were more foreign payload specialists in line for missions scheduled after challenger, including an Indonesia representative for the PALAPA commsat... but these were all cancelled.

    LATER -- there were diplomatic outreach shuttle passengers, particularly for Ukraine and Israel, and of course for Spacelab and ISS partners.

    But the al-Saud mission had nothing to do with playing nice-nice with anybody but cash-in-hand paying customers.

  2. Sorry, but that doesn't reconcile with the historical facts I found.

    As I quoted from the L.A. Times article, the Arab League was allowed to designated one payload specialist since as you note they had a satellite on board.

    Prince Sultan had no qualifications at all. To quote from his Wiki page at:


    In 1982, he was appointed to the position of researcher in the Department of International Communications at the Ministry of Information in Saudi Arabia.

    In 1984, he served as Deputy Director for the Saudi Arabian Olympic Information Committee at the Olympics in Los Angeles, California. Later that year, when the Department of Advertising was created at the Ministry of Information, he was appointed its Acting Director.


    He was telegenic, he spoke English well enough, and he was a member of the Saudi royal family.

    Let's also remember the political history of NASA at the time. The Reagan administration had just flown Senator Jake Garn and was about to fly Rep. Bill Nelson. The Teacher in Space program was about to select Christa McAuliffe, and a Journalist in Space selection was on deck.

    It may not have been an official "outreach" as you put it, but it was clearly a publicity stunt. The article I referenced in Saudi Aramco World makes it clear he was on a P.R. tour for many months after his flight, promoting U.S. - Saudi relations.

    In essence, Prince Sultan appears to have been the Arab version of Christa McAuliffe.

    If the prince was singularly qualified to be aboard Discovery to consult on the launch of that satellite, I would not have reached the conclusion I did. But everything points to his selection for strictly political reasons.

  3. Back up a few spaces. Do you concede that the payload customer had the right to choose SOMEBODY to fly with their payload? You just don't like THEIR choice? You're saying al-Saud had NO connection with the payload and in YOUR opinion he was picked for non-technical reasons? If so, what candidate choice criteria did NASA insist on -- if any?

  4. I quoted exactly what the L.A. Times said about how the prince came to be selected. Are you saying the Times was wrong?

    And you've yet to tell me how the prince was qualified to be an astronaut, much less how he was qualified to support launch of that satellite.

    The point remains ... He was a publicity stunt.

    I did a quick Google and found this article from Saudi Aramco World that discusses his qualifications and training:

    It's a fluff piece, but it's pretty clear he really had nothing to do with building the satellite, nor would he have been able to help out if there had been a technical problem with the satellite.

    Did NASA have any say in who was chosen? I wasn't there. But I can't imagine that if the Arab League had chosen someone hazardous to the mission that NASA had no say. It's certainly clear that NASA and the Reagan administration benefitted from his flight. The Saudi Aramco World article I cited in the article is quite detailed about the extended P.R. tour he took in the following months, telling people how his flight improved relations between the United States and the Arab world.

    Isn't that what Obama wants? Isn't that what we as a nation should want?

    Your problem appears to be that you don't like the idea of using NASA human space flight to encourage the rest of the world to join us in space. As I noted in the article, Section 102(d)(7) of the National Aeronautics and Space Act authorizes cooperation with other nations as one NASA activity.

    NASA has been a political instrument pretty much since its inception. Kennedy hijacked NASA for the Moon program, not because he was a visionary but because he wanted to show the world our technology was better than the Soviet Union. Nixon used NASA to aid detente by flying Apollo-Soyuz. Reagan flew Congressmen, an Arab, a teacher and intended to fly a journalist.

    The payload specialist has been a back door for decades to send people into space who may not have been qualified. That position goes away with the demise of Shuttle, so it becomes a moot point.

    Now we talk about ISS access. What's wrong with encouraging the Arab world to send astronauts to ISS? Reading through the various articles about the prince, he had a lot of positive things to say about the experience that the world needs to hear now.

    If we could get both an Arab and an Israeli astronaut on the ISS at the same time, it would be a very powerful symbol for the world.

    World peace should be a foremost priority for this nation. NASA has served in that role many times before. I don't understand what all the "kerfuffle" is about, as you put it.

  5. Well, if it's on wikipedia, in an Aramco press release, and in the LA Times, I suppose that's good enough for you. Not for me. I usually delve into deeper sources and will report back after a short trip. Be well, and watch the skies!!

  6. It seems to me the most direct answer to this "kerfuffle" is for someone to contact Prince Sultan today and ask him not only for his reminiscences, but also to comment on the Obama administration's space overture to the Muslim world.

    As an aside ... Did anyone ever release the three-part "Russian Right Stuff" on DVD? I know at least one episode came out on VHS. I've looked for years but haven't been able to find them on DVD.

  7. Haha! You feel that you should have been given the opportunity which Prince Sultan was given?! You story is completely strange sounding. What are you trying to achieve? Is space the American territory inaccesible by other earth-beings? Ridiculous! Don't let your hatred for theism transcend into your thinking capabilities.