M'sian Guy Claims NASA Is Giving Him A Scholarship — But Things Aren't Adding Up
There are a number of things that raise red flags in Azhar Ali's claim, which has attracted the attention of several politicians including Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a statement from the National University of Singapore (NUS).
"NASA IS GIVING ME A SCHOLARSHIP!?" a 20-something Malaysian took to his Twitter account to excitedly announce recently
"Ya Allah, I NEVER thought of of [sic] this when I joined the Artemis Challenge. Alhamdulillah. The challenge was to design a spacesuit that would adjust to the Artemis 2024 mission to Mars, and thanks to @rafiqhilmi_'s question, I made it. Syukur," read his tweet that was posted on Thursday, 30 April.
In his tweet, the Malaysian, identified as Azhar Ali, included four images.
The first image showed an email from someone named Rene Holland, who — according to her LinkedIn profile — is a NASA Human Resources Business Partner.
In the screenshot of the email, Rene from NASA informs Azhar — whom she addresses as Muhammad — that he has "obtained a top 1% score" from the Artemis Student Challenge Program.
"Upon consideration, we at NASA STEM Engagement would want you to join our team of Youth Artemis Scientist. Along with the request, NASA and National University of Singapore, NUS, are prominently offering you the NASA Degree Scholarship subjected to requirements," read the email.
The second image showed an infographic about his "overall grading score".
"Congratulations Muhammad, you obtained a SUPER DISTINCTION score of 96.77% Spacesuit Interface Efficiency level. Your score was is [sic] the TOP 1 percent of 3,623,982 participants," read the text and thanked Azhar for his "dedication of time and effort upon helping us solve current challenges".
"To commemorate this achievement, you are now officially a Citizen Scientist," it added.
In the third and fourth image, Azhar included screenshots showing him being listed as a "Citizen Scientist" in the official NASA website and a tweet from March by NASA Exoplanets, respectively.
Needless to say, the tweet went viral with Azhar's NASA story being picked up by multiple local and government-linked media outlets
His tweet also attracted the attention of several official Twitter accounts including the Prime Minister, the Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation, and the Minister of Higher Education.
"Indeed, a success to be proud of. May you continue to be successful," Muhyiddin Yassin tweeted.
Khairy Jamaluddin welcomed Azhar into his ministry and the Malaysian Space Agency.
The Minister of Higher Education congratulated Azhar and wished him the best.
As of 3pm Saturday, 2 May, Azhar's tweet received over 26,000 retweets. At which point, we at SAYS reached out to him.
However, he has since made his Twitter account private, cutting off the stream of congratulatory messages that were flowing in.
There are a number of things that raise red flags in Azhar's claim and we were hoping to speak to Azhar directly for this story to get some clarifications.
After not hearing back from him on Twitter, we emailed Azhar at his email address.
Prior to which, we had also emailed several others including Rene from NASA, NASA Press Secretary and Senior Communications Advisor Matthew Rydin, NUS Chief Communications Officer Ovidia Lim-Rajaram, and the NUS Office of University Communications.
However, at the time of writing this story, we have yet to receive a response from any of them.
So what's not adding up?
The very first thing we did was to check the official NASA website, which according to the screenshots in Azhar's tweet listed him as a "Citizen Scientist".
However, a check by SAYS didn't yield any such result.
Searching by "Muhammad" also doesn't make his name come up.
The same page lists other Citizen Scientists, all of whose names are hyperlinked to their individual pages on NASA's Solar System website. In Azhar's screenshot, his name is not hyperlinked.
In earlier replies seen by SAYS, Azhar claims this is due to the screenshot being directly from NASA and that he did not edit his name there as several netizens claimed.
To offer an explanation for the inconsistency, the 20-year-old said that the reason his name doesn't appear on the website currently is probably because he was recently added to the list.
He said it on Thursday, adding that his name should be up by Friday, 1 May. However, it is still not up.
Secondly, the infographic from NASA has multiple grammatical errors and poor sentence structure, which raises questions about its authenticity and whether it's actually from the space agency.
The infographic about "overall grading score" incorrectly spelt efficiency as "effieciency" and a sentence said "was is" instead of was in. The typo and grammatical error, while minor, doesn't boost confidence.
Now the above infographic, which is purported to be from NASA, looks edited.
As pointed out by a Twitter user, the "Artemis Student Challenge" logo was cut from the NASA website and pasted on the infographic. The edited logo's background is a clear giveaway.
Now about that "top 1%" remark
According to the numbers listed in the infographic, a total of 3,623,982 participants competed in the challenge, of which 1.52% of them scored between 90 to 100 marks.
Azhar scored a "super distinction" by being in the top 1%.
Of 3,623,982 participants, 1% is roughly 36,239 and 1.52% is around 55,084 participants.
Now the question here is: how many of them are receiving the NASA scholarship?
All 36,239 in the top 1%, or the 55,084 in the 1.52% or just Azhar?
We don't know because the people we reached out to at NASA hasn't responded back.
However, the single biggest red flag about Azhar's claim is the NASA SUITS competition's eligibility criteria.
It's an "on-site" activity at its Space Centre Houston and participants "MUST be US Citizens or Legal Permanent Residents".
The eligibility criteria also state that "each prospective on-site team member must be a full-time undergraduate or graduate student enrolled in an accredited US institution of higher learning".
Additionally, the challenge is for teams, not an individual student.
This could mean that Azhar is either a US citizen or is a Legal Permanent Resident.
However, in a private message to a Twitter user, which has been shared with SAYS, Azhar claimed that "the scholarship is an affliction [sic] of NUS, not NASA so it's possible for Asians to join".
Now the "NASA" in NASA Degree Scholarship that's mentioned in the email from Rene to Azhar stands for NUS Awards for Study Abroad, a scholarship programme by NUS.
SAYS is in possession of an admission letter purported to be from the NUS, but is choosing not to share it publicly at this point. The letter is not a scholarship offer. It states that NUS is offering Azhar admission under "Mathematics/Applied Mathematics for Cosmology".
The eligibility criteria for this programme, according to the NUS website, is open to "full-time undergraduate students who are Singapore Citizens".
This could mean that Azhar is a Singapore citizen.
So which one is it? Is he a US citizen or a Singapore citizen? He can't possibly be both.
We haven't heard back from him yet.
Now the thing about the NASA SUITS Artemis Student Challenge
In the challenge, students are to design and create spacesuit information displays within augmented reality (AR) environments and would adjust to the Artemis mission to Moon, not Mars.
The NASA SUITS, which stands for Spacesuit User Interface Technologies for Students Challenge is closed and the NUS is not mentioned anywhere in the list of institutions that have been selected for it.
The Twittersphere is abuzz with similar doubts and questions over Azhar's claim. However, there has been no official word yet.
Following the publication of this story, NUS today, 3 May, sent us this statement:
"We would like to clarify that the University did not send a letter with an offer of admission to Mr Muhammad Azhar Bin Muhammed Ali. In addition, the University does not offer a course on 'Mathematics/Applied Mathematics for Cosmology'.
"The NUS Awards for Study Abroad (NASA) Scholarships support study abroad opportunities for NUS undergraduates. It is not offered in partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration."