Viral publication is wrong about NASA-funded study


The claim: NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react to the discovery of alien life

The prospect of discovering alien life may sound like science fiction to many, but not to NASA.

In 2015, the agency and the John Templeton Foundation awarded a grant for a research project to the Center of Theological Inquiry into the potential societal implications of astrobiology, an area that NASA defines as “the study of the origin , of the evolution and distribution of life in the universe. “

In December 2021, a tweet now deleted which referred to the study went viral on Twitter and as a screenshot on other platforms. But he was wrong about several details.

The post claimed that two dozen theologians had recently joined the ranks of NASA with the mission of predicting the human response to the discovery of alien beings.

“NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react if we found out about alien life,” the tweet said. “I have a feeling that this subplot in the 2021 season finale is sowing the seed for the main storyline of 2022.”

More than 24,000 Twitter users retweeted the claim, which also appeared in several popular Facebook posts. A screenshot of the tweet posted to a popular Facebook group on December 27 has been shared more than 8,000 times; another appeared on the Weird History Facebook page on January 1.

However, NASA did not lead the program, and the researchers were visiting researchers at the Center of Theological Inquiry, not NASA employees.

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USA TODAY has contacted several users who shared the post for comment.

Claim based on misunderstanding of a NASA-funded research study

The rumors began on December 26, when The Times UK published an interview with Reverend Andrew Davison, a theologian and biologist at the University of Cambridge who participated in the 2016-17 research program.

The user who posted the tweet told USA TODAY that its source was a Daily Mail article from that interview. The article incorrectly says that NASA “hired 24 theologians” for the program.

NASA told USA TODAY that the agency was not directly involved in hiring or managing the program.

“NASA was not involved in the selection of researchers for this study, and the people who receive grants from NASA are not agency employees, advisers or spokespersons,” Karen wrote. Fox, senior director of science communications at NASA, in an emailed statement. in the USA TODAY.

The Center of Theological Inquiry received funding from NASA and the John Templeton Foundation to lead the project, which examined “the societal implications for NASA’s astrobiological effort and life search,” Fox wrote.

This NASA photo shows members of NASA's Perseverance Mars rover team observing mission control as the first images arrive moments after the spacecraft successfully landed on Mars on February 18, 2021, in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.  A key focus of Perseverance's mission to Mars was astrobiology, including looking for signs of ancient microbial life.

The tweet suggested that news of the research effort “would sow the seed of the main 2022 storyline.” However, the NASA-funded portion of the project ended in 2017, Fox said.

Checking the facts:No, NASA did not find a parallel universe

Additionally, NASA’s interest in astrobiology and its ramifications for humanity began a long time ago.

“Addressing the societal implications of astrobiology and, in particular, the potential societal impact of the discovery of life beyond Earth has been a goal of NASA since 1998,” Fox said.

NASA has “searched for signatures of life beyond Earth” since the 1960s, just a few years after the US government formed it in 1958. The agency’s research led to the discovery that the ancient Mars had been “a completely hospitable place for microbial life” and, in 1998, the establishment of the NASA Institute for Astrobiology.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we deem FALSE the claim that NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react to the discovery of alien life. NASA partially funded a study on the societal implications of astrobiology, but it was led by the independent Center of Theological Inquiry. NASA had no role in choosing or hiring the 24 researchers who participated in the program, and the program is not new – NASA funding was awarded in 2015 and ended in 2017.

Our sources of fact-checking:

  • Astrobiology at NASA, accessed January 4, About Astrobiology
  • Astrobiology at NASA, accessed January 4, History of Astrobiology
  • The Times UK, December 22, 2021, Heavens above: NASA calls in priest to prepare for alien discovery
  • Karen Fox, January 3, email exchange with USA TODAY
  • John Templeton Foundation, July 2015, The Astrobiology Outreach Project: Increasing the impact of a NASA-funded survey on the societal implications of astrobiology
  • Daily Mail, December 24, 2021, NASA “looks skyward” for help: The agency called on 24 theologians to assess how the world would react to the discovery of alien life on distant planets and how it could change our perception of gods and creation
  • @ davenewworld_2, December 26, 2021, Tweeter (archived)
  • @ davenewworld_2, Jan 3, Twitter direct message exchange with USA TODAY
  • David Sieminski, December 27, 2021, Facebook post in “Best and Worst of Twitter 2” (archived)
  • Weird History, Facebook post from January 1 (archived)

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