White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Monday that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden must have misspoken when he told Al Jazeera last month that one of his top priorities is to reach out to Muslim countries.
"That was not his task and that's not the task of NASA," Gibbs said.
Bolden, though, said last month in the interview that it was President Obama who gave him that task. He made a similar claim in February.
The White House also backed up Bolden last week when his remarks first stirred controversy. A White House spokesman last Tuesday said Obama wants NASA to engage with the world's best scientists and that to meet that challenge, NASA must "partner with countries around the world like Russia and Japan, as well as collaboration with Israel and with many Muslim-majority countries."
NASA last week walked back Bolden's claim that Muslim outreach was the "perhaps foremost" plank of his mission, saying that Bolden was merely talking about his "outreach" responsibilities and that space exploration is still NASA's No. 1 job.
But Gibbs on Monday appeared to deny that Bolden was asked to focus on Muslim outreach at all.
Asked whether Bolden misspoke, Gibbs said: "I think so."
He said he wasn't aware of Obama speaking to Bolden about his comments.
The Muslim comments were met with a wall of criticism last week from conservatives and former NASA officials who said that while Muslim-nation outreach is laudable, it should not be a NASA priority.
Bolden said in the interview that Obama told him before he took the job that he wanted him to do three things: inspire children to learn math and science, expand international relationships 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."