Senior NASA Scientist Pleads Guilty to Lying About Connection to Chinese Spy Program

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January 14, 2021

A senior NASA scientist pleaded guilty to falsely denying his connection to a Chinese program used to steal American intellectual property and technology.

Veteran NASA employee and professor Meyya Meyyappan lied to federal authorities, the NASA inspector general, and investigators from U.S. attorney offices about his work for China's Thousand Talents Program, according to the Department of Justice. Meyyappan most recently worked as a chief research scientist in exploration technology at a NASA research facility in Silicon Valley. The scientist refused to disclose his participation in the Thousand Talents Program and also lied about his professorship at a Chinese university when confronted by federal officials. 

FBI assistant director William F. Sweeney Jr. said Meyyappan's actions jeopardized national security.

"Members of U.S. government agencies are strictly prohibited from maintaining undisclosed affiliations with foreign entities, especially those that are actively seeking our intellectual property and technological advances," Sweeney said in a statement. "Meyyappan violated this sacred rule, and then lied to FBI agents about it."

The Thousand Talents Program remains one of the primary ways China steals millions of dollars in intellectual property each year, using the program to pressure students and professors into spying for the technological arms of the Chinese Communist Party. The program touts at least 7,000 students and professors, according to one report from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has called the program a key battlefront in the fight against China. 

Department of Justice officials said the case will send a message to others who might compromise American security or open the door to Chinese espionage in a critical federal program.

"Actions like those carried about by Meyyappan can have security implications, and his charges should serve as a warning to others thinking about engaging in the same type of activity," Sweeney said.

Likely armed with American technology, the Chinese space program has exploded in recent years to challenge U.S. supremacy in space. A senior Pentagon official told the Washington Free Beacon in September that China hopes to become a "space great power," and its progress on that front has been rapid. China, which surpassed the United States in rocket launches in 2020, hopes to launch more rockets into orbit this year—40 launches altogether—than any previous year.