CLAIM: “NASA just hired 24 theologians to assess how the world would react if we discovered alien life.”
AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. NASA has not hired any theologians to study the potential reaction humans would have to the discovery of alien life. NASA provided some funding in 2015 to the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey, for a program to study the potential societal impact of finding life beyond Earth. The NASA-funded portion of the program ended in 2017, an agency spokesperson told The Associated Press.
THE FACTS: Some social media users are sharing the claim that NASA recently hired two dozen theologians to research how people might respond to the discovery of extraterrestrial life, teasing that the actions could be foreshadowing chaos in the year to come.
One tweet that was shared nearly 25,000 times made the joke that the so-called NASA hires were “planting the seeds for the main storyline of 2022.”
While the agency’s astrobiology program did grant money to the Center of Theological Inquiry, frequently referred to as CTI, to “assess societal implications for NASA’s astrobiological and search for life efforts,” NASA was not involved in the selection of researchers, according to an agency spokesperson. The fellows worked independently through the center and were not considered NASA employees.
Further, the NASA-funded parts of the research concluded four years ago. The program was also funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation.
“Individuals who receive grant funding from NASA are not employees, advisors, or spokespersons for the agency,” the NASA spokesperson told the AP in an email. “Thus, the researchers and scholars involved with this study were not hired by NASA, but instead received funding through CTI to conduct this work.”
William Storrar, CTI’s director, told the AP that the purpose of the program was not to advise NASA, but to convene scholars in the humanities to discuss research in astrobiology, which is the scientific field that studies the potential of the universe to harbor life outside Earth.
“These scholarly reflections on the societal implications of astrobiology are being published in a series of individual monographs and peer-reviewed academic journal articles by the theologians, religion scholars, philosophers and literary scholars who participated in our research program for visiting scholars at the Center of Theological Inquiry,” Storrar wrote in an email.
The topic is also not new to NASA. The agency spokesperson added that NASA has sought to address similar topics, including the “potential societal impact of finding life beyond Earth,” since 1998.
Although the CTI program had finished by 2018, it gained attention recently when one of the former fellows, Rev. Andrew Davison from the University of Cambridge, announced he was set to publish a book called “Astrobiology and Christian Doctrine.” Davison researches the consequences of astrobiology for Christian theology, according to the Divinity school at Cambridge.
Davison also confirmed to the AP that he was not “hired directly or paid a salary” by NASA or CTI. He said Cambridge continued to pay his salary while he participated in the program.