How a NASA Tweet Stoked a Religious Divide

People are asking: do images and idols of deities belong on the desk of a NASA intern?
Shamani Joshi
Mumbai, IN
How a NASA Tweet Stoked a Religious Divide
The NASA logo is displayed on a mobile phone screen. Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This week, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) tweeted to announce their last date of applications for their fall internship program, along with images of four interns currently working with them. 

Their tweet ended up going viral, but probably not for the reasons they’d intended.

One of the photos featured an Indian-origin intern named Pratima Roy who posed with a desk full of idols and pictures of Hindu gods and goddesses. This photo has now become the subject of a religious divide. 


"I found the photo of an intern surrounded by gods and goddesses used by NASA as perpetuating the stereotype [that] Hindus, even if they are students of science, are extremely religious and always seeking divine blessings,” Ashok Swain, an academic and professor of peace and conflict research, told VICE World News. “It is very unusual to see a student or intern’s workplace look like a home altar.” 

Swain was one of the first social media users to call out NASA for what he felt was a tweet that stereotyped all Hindus as devout worshippers, but he decided to delete his tweet after it prompted hostile trolling. 

Many Twitter users felt the photo glorified stereotypes and questioned why a scientific organisation like NASA was showcasing religious imagery. 

Others applauded NASA for giving an Indian-origin woman a platform, and felt this photo showed that their internship programme was inclusive to all ethnicities. 

But it appears the intern in the controversial photo really did have a Hindu altar on her work from home desk.

“As an American-born Bengali who practices Hindu, I always strive to preserve my background and culture,” Roy said in a press statement. “This love for my culture is evident in the photo of me that was first shared on a NASA blog in March and recently sparked a lot of conversation about my faith after NASA published a Tweet about the fall internship deadline.”


Roy is a computer engineering student who has been interning at the NASA Glenn Research Center on a project connected to their Moon to Mars mission. 

“I truly believe that God and the support of my family [have] given me the opportunity to intern at NASA,” Roy said in an interview for a NASA blog. “God observes everything we do and what we want in our lives, and a dream can actually come true!” 

Some Twitter users said the backlash to the tweet exposed “Hinduphobia”, a term that refers to anti-Hindu sentiments. This term is often used by right-wing leaders and followers in India for those who criticise controversial Hindu godmen (highly revered gurus) or policies by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. 

Movies and web series that have received backlash for “hurting religious sentiments” have also been called “Hinduphobic” in India. Previously, many Indians have threatened to boycott retail giants like Amazon for selling underwear and doormats with Hindu symbols. 

A 2020 study on the social realities of Indian Americans by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace remarked that while a 1911 report by U.S. Congress had said Hindus were “universally regarded as the least desirable race of immigrants thus far admitted to the United States,” U.S. Census data today affirms that Indian Americans enjoy a standard of living that is roughly double that of the median American household. 

“At NASA, we have proven that unity, diversity, inclusion, and equal opportunity are our strengths,” NASA said in a statement to VICE World News. “By fostering an atmosphere of inclusion and respect for all, we can continue to value and appreciate the strengths afforded by both the commonalities and differences between us, not only our inherent differences, but also in the styles, ideas, and organizational contributions of each person.”

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Correction: This story originally included a tweet which was falsely attributed to the intern. We regret the error. An updated version includes a statement from Roy and NASA.