Published online 20 October 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.1030

News

Moon scientist arrested on spy charges

Radar expert worked on US and Indian missions.

A US scientist who had high-level security clearance and was a principal investigator on a current NASA Moon mission has been arrested for attempted espionage.

Stewart Nozette.NASA

The charges from the US Department of Justice accuse Stewart Nozette, 52, of attempting to sell classified information concerning nuclear weapons and military satellites to an undercover agent posing as an Israeli spy. After being arrested on 19 October, Nozette appeared the following day in US District Court in the District of Columbia.

A visiting research scientist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Nozette ran a non-profit space technology organization out of his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. He is the principal investigator for the radar instrument on NASA's currently orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, was a scientist for the radar instrument on India's recent lunar Chandrayaan-1 mission, and ran the radar experiment on the US Clementine lunar mission in 1994. All the missions have hinted at ice at the lunar poles, and Nozette has published related data in journals such as Science and the Journal of Geophysical Research — Planets.

"I think it's a sad situation," says John Logsdon, a space policy expert at the George Washington University in Washington DC. Logsdon knew Nozette when Nozette served on the National Space Council for former president George H. W. Bush in 1989 and 1990.

Investigative pace

From 1990 to 1999, Nozette worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where he had access to atomic secrets. During this time, he also set up the non-profit Alliance for Competitive Technology (ACT). Tax records indicate that ACT took in $525,654 in 2007, of which $143,450 was spent on Nozette's salary, $52,034 on use of his home office and $185,924 on legal fees. The records name three people for the organization: Nozette as president; his wife, Wendy McColough, as vice president; and Klaus Heiss as director. Heiss is an advocate for Moon bases and has connections to the Science and Environmental Policy Project, a group that opposes current scientific thinking on climate change.

ACT, according to its mission statement, specializes in transferring technology from national laboratories to US industrial organizations. But according to a criminal complaint in support of the federal charges, Nozette was planning to simply sell technology to the highest bidder. An undercover agent, posing as a spy for Israel, asked if Nozette would be willing to work for them. Nozette allegedly asked for an Israeli passport and said he still remembered lots of classified information.

"Well, I should tell you my first need is that they should figure out how to pay me... they don't expect me to do this for free," Nozette told the fake agent, according to the complaint.

On 1 October, Nozette was allegedly filmed dropping a manila envelope with a portable hard disk containing classified secrets on it, in exchange for $9,000. Nozette had his security clearance suspended in 2006, according to the complaint.

This isn't the first time Nozette has been in trouble. A civil suit in the US District Court in 2006 shows that NASA's office of the inspector general had been investigating whether Nozette was charging NASA for expenses he didn't incur. The agency inspector general's office declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.

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In court filings from 2006, lawyers for Nozette sought to quash NASA's request for ACT's bank records. The filing states that NASA's inspector general opened an investigation only after Nozette had raised questions about an ex-convict who was appointed in 2005 to lead NASA's Moon programme. In an e-mail, Nozette wondered if the Thomas Jasin who had been picked to lead the Moon programme was the same Thomas Jasin who had spent time in prison in Pennsylvania. "Just checking if it's the same person, there are concerns?" Nozette wrote.

Neither Nozette nor his attorney could be immediately reached for comment. Nozette did not enter a plea at his Tuesday court appearance. He is being held without bail pending a 29 October hearing. 

Additional reporting by Geoff Brumfiel.

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