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.
Bolden plans to attend an aerospace technology conference Saturday and a ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the shuttle flight STS-51G, a U.S. flight that carried the first Muslim -- a member of Saudi royalty -- into space. Bolden also may hold a meeting with Saudi King Abdullah.
The Orlando Sentinel reported that "top" NASA officials had urged Bolden not to make the trip, but NASA had no comment when asked about the claim.
The White House in July tried to walk back Bolden's remarks after he told Al Jazeera about his diplomatic mission regarding Muslim nations. Bolden had said President Obama wanted him to help those countries "feel good" about their scientific contributions; critics said that while the outreach was worthwhile, it should not be a top priority for the space agency.
Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said at the time that Bolden probably misspoke and that space exploration is still NASA's top job.