White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said Bolden probably misspoke in recent remarks in which the NASA chief and former astronaut said one of his foremost tasks in leading NASA is to engage with Muslim nations about science.
"That was not his task, and that's not the task of NASA," Gibbs said during Monday's daily briefing.
NASA confirmed that Bolden misspoke.
"NASA's core mission remains one of space exploration, science and aeronautics," NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage told SPACE.com. "Administrator Bolden regrets that a statement he made during a recent interview mischaracterized that core mission. The success of NASA's efforts is increasingly enhanced by mutual cooperation with dozens of other countries around the world that are also committed to these efforts."
Bolden said President Barack Obama had charged him with three things upon becoming NASA administrator.
"One, 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, math and engineering," Bolden said.
The comments have ignited a flurry of controversy – particularly over the omission of space exploration as one of the three goals.
Michael Griffin, whom Bolden replaced as NASA administrator, told the Washington Examiner, "It is a perversion of NASA's purpose to conduct activities in order to make the Muslim world feel good about its contributions to science and mathematics."
Gibbs said the president has not spoken to Bolden directly about his statements, though members of the administration have probably conferred with NASA over the issue.