Let’s admit it – there’s a special soft spot we Indians have for the inspirational success story. And when that story packs in amazing achievements in rocket science and the mecca of space research, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), it’s guaranteed a spot in the holy bible of India's shining stories.
What’s alarming, though, is how credulously we treat these stories, most of which come with astonishing red flags that rudimentary fact-checking would raise.
The latest in our NASA heroes is Monark Sharma from Jaipur. Earlier this week, a number of reports emerged that Monark had landed a dream job in the US Army – designing, inspecting, manufacturing and maintaining fighter helicopters for a massive remuneration of Rs 1.2 crore per year.
According to the slew of stories that reproduced the same details, Monark began his career as a junior research scientist in the communications wing of NASA in 2013. Joining the army in 2016, he reportedly won the Army Service Medal and the Safety Excellence Award within a few months. The Jaipur boy, who studied Electronics and Communications Engineering from Jaipur National University, reportedly found his way into NASA by winning and placing fifth in two NASA competitions – the Moon Baggi Project in 2011 and the Luna Boat project in 2012, respectively.
As Huffington Post describes, however, Monark’s story came with a number of major loopholes. The most glaring of these was Monark’s quote, that said, "Here NASA offered me a job and a green card. I was awarded citizenship through US Army in 2016."
But as HuffPost India confirmed with NASA, citizenship is a mandatory pre-requisite for a job at the space research organisation, and it does not, “offer green cards or in any way work around U.S. immigration laws and policies.”
NASA also told HuffPost that there was no record of Monark ever having participated in the Great Moon Buggy Race, which reports claimed were what got him noticed by NASA.
HuffPost also reveals that the two prestigious awards Monark claimed to have received – the Army Service Medal and the Safety Excellence Award – have recently been awarded for military operations in Liberia from 2014 to 2015 and in South Sudan from 2016 to 2017, and hence could not possibly have been won by Monark based in the US.
The black hole theory
This isn’t the first such case to crop up in the Indian media. In February 2016, several news outlets published a series of fanciful articles on a West Bengal teenager named Sataparna Mukherjee, who had apparently won a prestigious scholarship from NASA. The Wire, and HuffPost, were among the first outlets to debunk this bizarre hoax.
Here’s the tale – 18-year-old Sataparna posted her work on “black hole theory” on a social networking site that included many scientists as members. Encouraged by them, she then posted her work on the NASA website, and won a scholarship from NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS)for fully-funded study up to the PhD level at Oxford University.
The Wire pointed out a number of holes in Sataparna’s story – including her claim that she would be working at NASA’s London Astrobiology Centre while she studied at Oxford. The Wire pointed out that no such centre exists. The Wire also observed that media outlets should have been instantly suspicious that NASA, struggling with budget cuts, should be funding a foreign student’s education at a foreign university like Oxford.
HuffPost poked even bigger holes in Sataparna’s story. From the NASA website where she published her results, to the London centre of NASA that she was to be joining, to the professors involved in her admission into Oxford, HuffPost showed that nearly everything in Sataparna’s story was non-existent or unable to be corroborated.
The coup de grace was a statement from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies that confirmed that there was no record of Sataparna Mukherjee.
The most amazing NASA hoax ever perpetrated on the Indian media, however, was by a young Malayalee man called Arun PV. Unlike Sataparna and Monark, who were debunked fairly soon, Arun managed to have various news outlets running with his claims for nearly two years. Reports about him appeared first in Malayalam newspapers and TV channels in 2012, and then in various national media outlets in 2013 and 2014.
Arun, the stories went, had been recruited as a research scientist by NASA to join a team of elite scientists searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life. He would simultaneously be conducting doctoral research under the famous scientist Barbara Liskov at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. So impressed was NASA with Arun that it even relaxed its US citizenship requirements to get him on board.
Arun even reportedly had a closed-door meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in which the PM told Arun that the doors of the country’s space research establishments were always open for him.
When the story eventually fell apart, though, it was discovered that Arun had no connection with NASA or with MIT. Instead, in 2013 and 2014, Arun was working at the Royal University of Bhutan as a lecturer. Even more amazingly, Bhutan University officials reportedly said that the only reason Arun had secured the job was because they were impressed with all the media coverage he had received in India.
There have been other hoaxes of latent scientific talent in India being recognised by foreign universities, of course. But it seems that nothing sets Indian hearts aflutter as much as Indian geniuses finding their spot in the limelight at NASA. So enamoured are we with the idea that we are often ready to swallow the biggest, most incredible lies in favour of that pleasant feel-good factor.