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NASA admits mistake in banning Chinese student -- but likely too late to help

Vintage NASA Logo

A vintage logo for NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (NASA)

Misapplication of a federal law meant to stem the theft of American technological know-how has likely made it impossible for several Chinese scientists to attend a NASA astronomy conference -- a ban criticized by Chinese officials and the law's author.

One of those banned is Yale University post-doctoral student Ji Wang, who had planned to present data from the now-defunct Kepler spacecraft at the event. NASA head Charlie Bolden admitted the agency had made a mistake on Thursday, a change of heart likely too late to help, said Alan P. Boss, a member of the Carnegie Institution for Science and co-chair of the conference.

"The efforts of NASA's Ames Research Center to ensure that our Chinese astronomer colleagues will be able to attend
the Second Kepler Science Conference have been halted by the fact these approvals must be entered into a computer system at NASA HQ in Washington DC," Boss told FoxNews.com.

"Because of the ongoing federal government shutdown, there is no one at NASA HQ who can complete the approval process."

"The ability of scientists to attend an open scientific meeting about the spectacular results produced by NASA's Kepler Space Telescope is another likely fatality of the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact a federal budget for FY2014," Boss added.

In a Thursday e-mail to NASA staff seen by FoxNews.com, space agency chief Charlie Bolden blamed "mid-level managers" and said his office was looking to correct the mistake.

"In performing the due diligence they believed appropriate following a period of significant concern and scrutiny from Congress about our foreign access to NASA facilities, meetings and websites, [they] acted without consulting NASA HQ," Bolden wrote.

'It is unfortunate that potential Chinese participants were refused attendance at the upcoming Kepler Conference.'

- NASA's Charlie Bolden

"Upon learning of this exclusion, I directed that we review the requests for attendance from scientists of Chinese origin and determine if we can recontact them immediately upon the reopening of the government to allow them to reapply."

The ban had been widely denounced by both Chinese officials and scientists, who initially labeled it “deplorable.”

The issue arose when an employee of the Ames Research Center where the Kepler Science Conference II is to be held sent an e-mail citing a 2013 restriction spearheaded by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va. It prevents the agency from hosting any Chinese nationals, and was drafted as a response to national security concerns -- concerns described to FoxNews.com in conversations with a whistle-blower earlier this year.

But it shouldn't extend to students and ordinary scientists, Wolf said.

“It places no restrictions on activities involving individual Chinese nationals unless those nationals are acting as official representatives of the Chinese government," reads an Oct. 8 letter Wolf wrote to NASA chief Charlie Bolden and supplied to FoxNews.com. 

[pullquote]

Speaking Wednesday in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called the ban "discriminatory." She said China believed that academic or scientific research activities "should not be politicized."

A strongly worded letter from the committee organizing the event agreed.

“We find the consequences of this law deplorable and strongly object to banning our Chinese colleagues, or colleagues from any nation, from participation in KSC2 at NASA/Ames. Had we been aware of this possibility at the onset of planning KSC2, alternate venues to NASA/Ames would have been pursued,” the letter reads.

Wolf said the ban was a misinterpretation of the rules: NASA had conflated the temporary restriction and a larger, 2011 congressional provision that primarily restricts bilateral meetings and activities with the Communist Chinese government.

“The email from NASA Ames mischaracterizes the law and is inaccurate.”

Yet Wolf told Bolden he remains concerned about leaks of highly sensitive information from Ames and elsewhere in NASA.

“There is good reason Congress is concerned about providing the Communist Chinese government with additional opportunities to work with the U.S. on space given their continued cyberattacks, espionage campaigns and development of space weapons to use against the U.S.,” Wolf wrote.

Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.

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