Milky Way Galaxy

You're invited. NASA now says it's OK for six Chinese students who were barred from a conference on the findings of the Kepler spacecraft, which searched the Milky Way galaxy for new planets, to attend.

Kepler/NASA Ames

Never Mind. NASA Says Ban on Chinese Students Was a Misunderstanding

It was all just a misunderstanding.

That’s NASA’s explanation for a decision to bar six Chinese nationals from attending a conference to be held at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California. The agency has now reversed that decision. And it says a ban that agency chief Charles Bolden imposed in March on citizens from China and seven other countries from attending events at NASA facilities is no longer in place—and hasn’t been since this past July.

Earlier this month, officials at NASA Ames informed the six individuals—all graduate students at U.S. universities—that they could not register for the conference from 4 to 8 November to discuss scientific findings from the Kepler mission because of language that Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) put in a 2011 appropriation bill. The decision sparked an outcry from conference participants, some of who threatened to boycott the event. It also prompted Wolf to send a scathing letter to Bolden pointing out that his legislation could not have been the basis for NASA’s decision. Among other things, the legislation prohibits NASA from hosting representatives of the Chinese government at any of the agency’s facilities; however, it does not place any blanket restriction on Chinese citizens entering NASA centers.

In fact, officials said, the decision to bar the students was based on the policy that Bolden announced at a congressional hearing in March. Bolden said it would be a temporary moratorium and would be lifted after NASA completed an internal review of security procedures for allowing citizens of these countries access to NASA facilities.

That review concluded in July, according to a NASA spokesperson. But not everybody in NASA management seems to have been aware that the moratorium was no longer in effect when the Chinese students attempted to register for the conference at Ames.

The resulting uproar appears to have lifted the fog of confusion. “The initial decision about the Kepler conference was based on an internal misunderstanding of the Administrator’s foreign national access moratorium implemented in March, which is no longer in effect,” writes Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesperson, in an e-mail to ScienceInsider. “But because NASA was essentially closed during the federal government shutdown (until October 17), we weren’t able to address and remedy this situation sooner than last Thursday.”

Beutel said NASA has asked the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) to conduct an independent security review of its facilities and procedures. “NASA is working closely with the NAPA review team and looks forward to its conclusions,” he writes.