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NASA disputes 'Indian test topper' story

By Suman Guha Mozumder in New York
Last updated on: February 24, 2005 21:53 IST
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Media reports out of India, suggesting that a high school senior from Uttar Pradesh has topped the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's International Scientist Discovery Examination for 2005-2006, have left NASA officials mystified.

There is, they say, no such examination, that they are aware of.

"I have been with NASA for 32 years, and I have never heard of any such programme conducted by NASA," a NASA official said, when approached for details about the exam. "Are you sure you got your facts right?"

The exam, this reporter informed him citing Indian media sources, has been taken in the past by A P J Abdul Kalam, India's President, and by the late Kalpana Chawla, the NASA astronaut who perished in the Columbia disaster two years ago.

No, the official reiterated -- at NASA, there is no awareness of any such test.

What, then, was this 'international test' Saurabh Singh, a 15 year old from Narhai in Uttar Pradesh and a student of the Gyan Peethika Senior Secondary School, reportedly topped?

The national chapter of NASA administered the test, as per Indian media reports. Asked if it was possible that some NASA department may have such an education program, NASA officials said it was unlikely.

The NASA web site makes no mention of any such programme in any part of the world.

"We are unable to confirm the existence of the International Scientist Discovery Examination," Debra Rahn, a spokesperson at the International Issues and News Media department at NASA, told rediff.com

Rahn doubted the veracity of media reports that suggested that former NASA chief Sean O'Keefe asked Singh a question on English grammar, and applauded the student on his giving the correct answer.

"O'Keefe, the former NASA administrator, did not visit India during his time at NASA," Rahn said.

Dwayne Brown, an official in the Education Department at NASA, was equally mystified. "Right now, no one knows where this examination comes from," he said.

Kaleem Kawaja, a senior engineer with NASA for close to two decades, said, "NASA does not give any grant, nor does it conduct any examination within the US, let alone internationally."

"NASA is not an examining body, as you know. It is not a university. It is a department of the government. Obviously there is no question of its conducting tests," Kawaja told rediff.com

Kawaja said while NASA does give some scholarships to bright students -- the Westinghouse scholarships being one example -- the practice is confined to students within the US. He said, further, that such scholarships are awarded at a far higher academic level, and not to high school students whether within the US or outside of its borders.

Kawaja, an IIT-trained engineer, said further the organisation does not select people on the basis of examinations it conducts; even when it hires people at various levels, it does not conduct any examinations.

"People come to NASA with certain academic records, and then they are interviewed and hired if they are found suitable. People come with masters, PhDs etc. but there is no such thing as taking a NASA examination. After all, NASA is not a college," he said.

Kawaja disputed media reports that both Chawla and Kalam had taken any 'NASA tests.'

He said the Indian President had come to NASA some 25 years ago as part of an Indo-US scholars exchange program. "Kalam came and worked in NASA's Wallops Highland facility as part of an exchange programme. He did not take any examination nor was he given any award by NASA as is claimed by some people," he said.

"Likewise, Chawla never took any such examination, to the best of my knowledge, as has been claimed in the reports," he said, adding that he was shocked by the coverage in the Indian media.

His best guess, Kawaja said, is some group in India is misusing the NASA acronym. "It is likely somebody has formed a group the abbreviation of which is NASA, and these people are misusing that," he said. "It is definitely not the NASA we all know about."

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Suman Guha Mozumder in New York