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Robert L. Ash, an aerospace engineer and administrator at Old Dominion University, didn't know what to think about the phone call he got last week from an editor at Wired News, a Web publication of Wired magazine.

"He asked if I could confirm quotes attributed to me in three stories and he mentioned the name of the writer of the stories," Ash said. "I had never heard of this writer. And when the editor read me the quotes I was supposed to have given to this writer, I didn't recognize any of them, either. The Wired editor said I was identified in the stories as an aerospace engineer and space historian. I told him I was no historian."

A week or so passed with Ash giving the phone dialogue not much thought, and again the matter was brought to his attention. He got a call on Wednesday, Aug. 9, from a media-watch Web publication called Gelf. The caller directed Ash to a posting on Wired News, which said the Web site's editors had withdrawn three articles written by Philip Chien from the site because an investigation had "failed to confirm the authenticity of a source used in the stories."

This supposed source was Ash, and Gelf wanted to know what the professor thought of being caught up in a hoax. Soon a reporter for the Associated Press was also asking Ash for a comment.

The three stories that were withdrawn are about spacewalks, a curse placed on a rocket launch pad by Native Americans and a NASA system for the conversion of urine into breathable oxygen.

"I have had a chance to read the three articles by Philip Chien, attributing factual information to me or, worse yet, quoting me," Ash wrote in a statement he sent to the AP. "My first reaction was that this was really humorous. However, on further thought, this is a very sobering problem. I have never met Philip Chien and don't believe that I have ever spoken with him."

He said the writer mixed just enough factual information into his articles to sound credible.
Ash helped to develop a system for NASA that could use elements found on Mars to produce propellant. But will NASA "seriously consider my new ideas if they think, 'He's the guy who claims the Indians put a curse on one of the launch pads at Vandenberg Air Force Base?'" Ash wrote in the statement sent to the AP

"I am happy that Wired was able to determine that the three articles were fabricated, and removed them from their Web site. I only wish they had made that determination before the articles were in print," Ash told the AP.

Ash is a professor and eminent scholar of aerospace engineering at ODU and associate vice president for research and economic development.

This article was posted on: August 11, 2006

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