A leading US space scientist credited with helping discover water on the moon has pleaded not guilty to charges he tried to sell US defense secrets to Israel for two million dollars.

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Stewart David Nozette, 52, could face the death penalty or life in jail after being charged with two counts of attempted espionage for allegedly trying to sell secrets to an FBI agent posing as an Israeli intelligence officer.

Judge Deborah Robinson rejected a bail request from Nozette, who was arrested October 19 in an FBI sting operation, saying he was considered a flight risk and should remain in jail pending trial.

“The weight of evidence against the defendant is substantial,” federal prosecutor Heather Schmidt told the court.

Court documents from the prosecution accused Nozette, who for years had a high-level US government security clearance, of seeking “roughly two million dollars as compensation for his espionage.”

He “delivered and communicated this classified information to an individual he believed was an Israeli intelligence officer in exchange for an alias, a foreign passport, and cash payments,” they said.

The government provided the court with recorded excerpts of a conversation with the FBI agent from October 19 in which a laughing Nozette mulled various plans to flee the United States should he be suspected of spying for Israel.

In their final discussion that day, the undercover FBI agent allegedly handed Nozette 10,000 dollars in 100 dollar bills, which he tried to hide inside a hotel bathroom toilet tank when federal agents arrested him.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation also searched Nozette’s safe deposit box at a bank in San Diego, California where they discovered 55 gold ‘Krugerrand’ coins worth a total of 50,000 dollars and 30,000 dollars in savings bonds, the court documents said.

“He asked for money, passport, a new identity. He had an entire plan on how he was going to leave the US” for Israel after getting paid, Schmidt said.

His defense team unsuccessfully dismissed the argument, stressing that Israel refused asylum even for Jonathan Pollard, the American convicted of spying for Israel in the 1980s.

Defense lawyer John Kiyonaga also appealed to an unmoved Judge Robinson that his client had committed only an “attempt” of espionage involving a close US ally. “That’s Israel. That’s not China, not North Korea, not even Russia,” Kiyonaga said.

Nozette worked at the US space agency NASA, the Energy Department, and even served on the White House’s National Space Council in 1989 and 1990, under then-president George H.W. Bush.

Between November 1998 and January 2008 Nozette was paid a total of 225,000 dollars for legally providing an Israeli government-owned aerospace company with technical data and advice, according to the indictment.

On January 30 Nozette pleaded guilty to federal tax evasion charges, agreed to pay more than 265,000 dollars restitution to the government, and had his passport confiscated.

Nozette, who appeared in a Washington courtroom in striped black and white prison garb, appeared unmoved when the judge ordered him detained until trial.

While he could face the death penalty, it was not clear if the government intended to seek capital punishment. An execution is considered unlikely, however, since the only US civilians ever executed for espionage were Soviet nuclear spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg back in 1953.

Pollard, now 55, is serving a life sentence in North Carolina.

Robert Hanssen, the FBI agent who spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services for more than 20 years and was arrested in 2001, pleaded guilty to avoid execution and is serving a life sentence.

CIA double agent Aldrich Ames, convicted in 1994 on similar charges, also bargained his way out of a death sentence and is spending the rest of his life behind bars.