Conspiracy theorists may wonder, why does NASA’s next major telescope director need top secret clearance? The space agency recently posted a want ad for a person to lead its James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, and in addition to aerospace engineering credentials and management experience, the candidate must have the highest possible level of security credentials.
NASA says the requirement is standard, although the ad raised some eyebrows in the security community. “It seems quite unusual,” says former CIA analyst Allen Thomson, who speculates that the clearance might allow the JWST director to coordinate using NASA telescope technology for National Reconnaissance Office satellites. Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy noted the requirement on his Secrecy News blog. “My first reaction was surprise that this was among the key requirements for the position,” Aftergood says. “And it’s a sign of just how closely the civilian space program is intertwined with national security.”
The JWST director will be required to have access to Top Secret and Sensitive Compartmented Information—the highest level of classified information, derived from intelligence sources and methods, Aftergood says. “It potentially covers a lot of ground.” To receive such a security clearance, a person might have to undergo polygraph testing, an oral interview and a thorough background check. “It raises a concern because of the potential to exclude some highly qualified candidates. There are some distinguished scientists who may be unwilling to submit to the security clearance process and the whole apparatus that comes with it, which can include such things as prepublication review requirements, intrusive background investigations and other moderately unpleasant features.”
The Webb telescope is being planned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, and will peer at some of the farthest reaches of space and time. The $8.8-billion observatory is due to launch in 2018. Whereas the current directors of Hubble and other major space telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, do not have security clearances the JWST director must because the telescope is still in the planning phase, according to NASA. “Senior NASA officials involved with the planning and development of future NASA space telescopes, such as the Science Mission Directorate associate administrator and the director of astrophysics, are expected to have security clearances for the same reasons as the JWST director,” says NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou.
Perhaps unsurprisingly with regards to such a secretive topic, NASA was mum on the details of what aspects of JWST planning require top secret clearance. “It is important to ensure that the JWST program director is exposed to and benefits from common practices, standards and manufacturing techniques that are used in both classified and unclassified programs,” Chou says. “This leads to a better understanding of the work involved and better mission outcomes.”
Aftergood speculated that the requirement likely had to do with the interface between Webb’s technology and that used in intelligence and military Earth-observing satellites. “I think it probably reflects the role of surveillance technology and the need for coordination with U.S. intelligence agencies,” he says.
Of course, fertile minds will inevitably hatch some more exciting, and implausible, possible reasons for the security requirement. For example, top secret clearance could come in handy if NASA ever encounters little green men (wink, wink).