NASA appears to have blocked public access to a server containing thousands of technical documents amidst charges by one US lawmaker over lapses of security involving a Chinese national who was hired as a contractor and was arrested while attempting to return to China.
The developing story centres on the recent actions of Bo Jiang, a research scientist employed at NASA's Langley research center. Bo was arrested on 16 March for lying to federal agents about his possession of a laptop, external hard drive and memory stick, after boarding a flight to China.
Suspicion fell on Bo starting on 7 March, when US Representative Frank Wolf announced at a press conference that concerned NASA employees informed him of lapses in security regarding Bo, a scientist studying imagery enhancements for contractor National Institute of Aerospace.
On 18 March, Wolf called on NASA to take down all public technical information so it could be reviewed for potential violations of export control laws, which tightly regulate spacecraft and satellite components. Wolf also called for "an immediate review" of foreign nationals with NASA credentials, and an audit of NASA contractors that employ foreign nationals on NASA property.
NASA had no immediate comment. An attempt to access the NASA technical report server (NTRS) was unsuccessful as of press time. The server is a database holding thousands of historic and current research reports spanning a wide spectrum of government-funded research on aeronautic and space issues.
Wolf, who represents a district in northern Virginia, chairs the House subcommittee on commerce, justice and science, which has oversight of both NASA and the FBI. He has strongly criticized China for alleged espionage activities, and has advocated tightened export controls.
"This is something he's really concerned about, and he's the chairman of the committee, and he gets to be aggressive about it," says Jim Muncy, a political analyst with Polispace.
"He doesn't want our space programme to advance them, directly or indirectly. Since he funds NASA he gets to make sure that NASA isn't cooperating with China's space programme," Muncy adds. "He's very consistent about it, he's very open about it, he hasn't surprised anyone with this."
In the wake of two incidents in the 1990s in which China was strongly suspected of espionage, tight export controls were imposed on spacecraft and satellite components. They have since been lifted somewhat, with the express exception of China.