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• NASA awarded a grant in 2015 to a nonprofit theological institute to study astrobiology, which is research into the origins of life on Earth and the search for life beyond Earth.
• Those who worked on the project — including visiting scholars in theology, the humanities and social sciences — were not hired or employed by NASA.
NASA, aliens and 24 theologians — it sounds like the start of a joke, but in fact, it was the makings of misinformation spreading on social media.
"NASA hired 24 theologians to study human reaction to aliens," said the Dec. 28 post on Instagram. The post appeared to be a screenshot of an online story from the New York Post, and it was shared by Joe Rogan, host of the popular Spotify podcast "The Joe Rogan Experience."
The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
The claim stems from funding that NASA awarded to a nonprofit, but it gets the details wrong. The project happened several years ago, but the New York Post published an article Dec. 27 about a new book that describes the nonprofit’s work.
NASA provided a grant in 2015 to the Center of Theological Inquiry, a nonprofit theological institute, to study astrobiology, which is research into the origins of life on Earth and the search for life beyond Earth. But those who worked on the project — including visiting scholars in theology, the humanities and social sciences — were not hired or employed by NASA.
The project was called "Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology," and also received grant funding from the John Templeton Foundation.
When the Center of Theological Inquiry was awarded the $1.1 million grant from NASA, the center’s director said the organization would "oversee a resident team of visiting scholars in theology, the humanities, and social sciences that will conduct an interdisciplinary inquiry on the societal implications" of the search for life in the universe, beyond Earth, according to a 2015 press release.
NASA told fact-checkers that "the researchers and scholars involved with this study were not hired by NASA, but instead received funding through CTI to conduct this work." The agency also noted that the people receiving funding were not NASA employees or advisers.
A NASA spokesperson told the Associated Press that NASA has sought to address similar topics, including the "potential societal impact of finding life beyond Earth," since 1998.
NASA’s astrobiology program "supports research that leads to a better understanding of how life emerged and evolved on Earth, what conditions make environments in our universe capable of supporting life, and what the distribution of habitable worlds and life beyond Earth might be," according to its website.
The Center of Theological Inquiry "works on a distinctive model," according to a 2016 article in Religious Dispatches, a publication based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "Each year, it invites a cohort of scholars to spend a year at the center, which is located in Princeton, N.J. While there, they pursue independent research projects and hold discussions around a common theme."
The Instagram post’s claim that the theologians involved in the project would study "human reactions to aliens" appears to be vastly oversimplified. The Religious Dispatches article said people were invited to apply for the astrobiology project if they were open to questions such as, "If there are many different forms of life … how would philosophy relate these diverse forms life to one another and establish the limits of what it means to be ‘alive’?" or "How might the world’s religions respond to the discovery of life on other planets?"
An Instagram post said, "NASA hired 24 theologians to study human reaction to aliens."
NASA awarded a grant in 2015 to the Center of Theological Inquiry to study astrobiology, and a description of the project involved philosophical questions about the prospect of alien life. But those involved in the project were not hired or employed by NASA.
The claim contains an element of truth, but gives a misleading impression about NASA’s role. We rate this claim Mostly False.
Associated Press, "NASA hasn’t hired theologians to study reaction to alien life," Dec. 29, 2021
Center of Theological Inquiry, "CTI Receives NASA Grant," May 12, 2015
Instagram post, Dec. 28, 2021
John Templeton Foundation, "The Astrobiology Outreach Project: Increasing the Impact of a NASA-supported Inquiry on the Societal Implications of Astrobiology," accessed Jan. 18, 2022
NASA, "Astrobiology at NASA," accessed Jan. 18, 2022
PolitiFact, "Joe Rogan," accessed Jan. 18, 2022
Religious Dispatches, "Should NASA Have Given $1.1 Million to a Theology Institute?" June 29, 2016
Snopes, "Did NASA Fund Theological Research To Study How Humans Would React to Extraterrestrial Life?" Dec. 29, 2021
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