If NASA discovered something and the government did not want it to be revealed to the public, would it still be publicized? And could they even keep from NASA employee’s and scientists, like they would be able to do in other government agencies? AND Where will you, your family, and the rest of the NASA team be on Dec. 21, 2012? I have been reading that NASA will not be on earth. That they will be “studying dust” on the moon. Please elaborate on why you “just so happened” to choose this date to not be here on earth with the rest of us.

I frequently receive questions like the first one. The second question, in contrast, is one of the nuttiest I have ever received. But they have in common a basic failure to understand what NASA is and how scientists operate. I will try to clarify. (1) NASA (a U.S. Government agency) rarely discovers anything. Individual scientists do, often with some support from NASA or using NASA instruments such as the Hubble Space Telescope (which, incidentally, is operated by a private academic consortium, not NASA itself). NASA does not dictate what is found or how the information is released (whether scientific papers or press conferences). Science discoveries are eventually submitted for publication in peer-reviewed journals, available to everyone. (2) In astronomy, most of the big telescopes are not affiliated with NASA at all, and many are outside the U.S. In addition to an international group of several thousand research astronomers, there are tens of thousands of amateurs with good telescopes of their own. Things in the sky can’t be hidden from these many enthusiastic observers. (3) NASA is not a person or a handful of people in Washington. NASA has 10 research centers with about 20,000 civil service employees, plus a much larger team of contractors and academic scientists whose research is partly paid for by NASA. There is no monolithic structure, no one “at the top” to give gag orders. Both NASA scientists and their academic counterparts are a pretty free-spirited group. (4) The second questioner thinks “NASA” will be on the Moon in 2012. I wonder what he is referring to: the 20,000 civil servants or the more than 100,000 others. Will the more than 100 scientists in the NASA Lunar Science Institute get to go? The truth is that today we have no rockets that could take people to the Moon, and the earliest we could land astronauts (just 4 at a time) is after 2020. (5) I plead with these and similar questioners to start by using Wikipedia or other reliable web resources to address your questions. Also, try to ignore the misinformation, the disinformation, and the careless errors that permeate “anti-government” or “conspiracy theory” websites. Use your powers of critical thinking!

David Morrison
Director, NASA Lunar Science Institiute

September 8, 2009

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