The allure of alien life: a preview



I’ll be giving a talk on “the allure of alien life” at a symposium at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress tomorrow. For more information, go to:

(See the page on this site, “The Allure of Alien Life,” for my paper and my slides.)

Today, the first day of this symposium, we heard a vigorous critique of the anthropocentric/ethnocentric/Western-White-Male-centric thinking that dominates the popular and scholarly discourse about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and speculations about “first contact.”

I guarantee you’ll hear more tomorrow. Tune in. The symposium is being webcast at:

If you miss the live event, the Kluge Center eventually will archive a video recording of the symposium.

The NASA IG’s NEO report: a corrective



NASA’s Office of Inspector General has published its audit of NASA’s Near Earth Object Observations Program. The audit found that the program is tasked with doing too much with too little.

ABC, CBS, and NBC made news of this finding as follows:

“NASA Inspector Blasts Asteroid Protection Program” (ABC)

“NASA Inspector General blasts asteroid detection program” (CBS)

“NASA’s watchdog office criticizes NASA’s asteroid-hunting program” (NBC)

In my humble opinion, these stories (and the others that copied and followed) are a tad misleading.

Here’s what the IG’s report says:

  • “Existing NEO program management [is] not commensurate with increased resources and expanded responsibilities.” (p. 9).
  • “NASA has placed overall Program responsibility in a single Program Executive at Headquarters who has no dedicated staff to assist with Program oversight.” (p. 10)
  • In addition to managing NASA-funded NEO detection, tracking, characterization, and mitigation efforts, “the Program supports the work of NASA initiatives such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission, and NEO Program personnel provide technical support for a Space Act agreement with the B612 Foundation to assist in the development of a privately funded, space-based infrared telescope. Despite this increased activity, NASA has not changed or improved the NEO Program’s management structure, and the Program has not established a plan to integrate the additional initiatives or track their contributions to attainment of NEO Program goals” (p. iii).

The NEO program’s budget has increased from $4 million in 2010 to $40 million this year. As the IG’s report notes, when the program budget was $20 million it was managed by one civil servant. Now that the program bugget is $40 million, it is still managed by one civil servant (the same one). (See above.)

I am a consultant to the NEO Observation Program on communication issues. I am not, and cannot be, involved in program management. I am not privy to any inside information on the status of the program. But it seems to me that the central message from the IG is not that the program “lacks structure” but that it lacks the resources needed to organize and operate as a well structured NASA program.

That’s my biased five cents worth.

Update: Nicaragua impact: meteorite, or not? JPL weighs in


Credit: Nicaraguan Army/Associated Press

On Sunday September 7, Nicaraguan media reported that a meteorite had crashed to Earth near the Managua airport around 11 PM local time Saturday September 6. The impact made a crater 12 meters in diameter and 5.5 meters deep, according to La Nacion (ACAN-EFE). Associated Press and Reuters reported on the event, and those reports were widely distributed via other media channels. 

Media reports quoted a Nicaraguan spokesperson stating that 1) the crater was caused by a metorite impact and 2) the meteorite was a fragment of the asteroid 2014 RC, which NEO observers reported last week would safely fly by Earth on Sunday September 7.

My (knowledgeable) sources say that since the Nicaraguan impact occurred 13 hours before the fly-by of 2014 RC, the object that caused the impact could not have been a fragment of 2014 RC. 

My sources also have not yet determined whether the impact was caused by a meteorite of by something else. Stay tuned for more information from the experts on what caused this impact. 

La Nacion noted in its report that the impact occurred near a military installation, as well as the airport. One media report quoted an eyewitness – actually an ear-witness – who said he was sitting on his porch at the time of the impact and saw nothing but heard the explosion. That seems odd, since the impact occurred at night.

We don’t have the advantage of hundreds of automobile dashboard cameras recording this impact event, as we did with the Chelyabinsk impact of 2013. I haven’t seen any close-ups of the impact crater, which would be helpful to experts interested in determining what created it.

So, again, stay tuned for more definitive reports on what caused this impact. 

UPDATE: SEE – JPL’s NEO Program Office reports, “Reports in the media over the weekend that a small meteorite impacted in Nicaragua have yet to be confirmed. A loud explosion was heard near Managua’s international airport Saturday night, and photos of a 24-meter (80-foot) crater have been circulated. As yet, no eyewitness accounts or imagery have come to light of the fireball flash or debris trail that is typically associated with a meteor of the size required to produce such a crater. Since the explosion in Nicaragua occurred a full 13 hours before the close passage of asteroid 2014 RC, these two events are unrelated.”

“Hot alien chicks”: this is “Science”?



In doing research (really) for a paper that I’m writing, I stumbled across a misbegotten bit of infotainment on the Web site of the Science Channel that I feel I must call out. At the risk of drawing attention to content we all should ignore, here goes.

On its “aliens & space” page, the Science Channel offers us a list of “top 10 hot alien chicks.”

Hot? Chicks? (Really, “chicks”? Jeeze.) Science?

Again, with no intent to draw attention to this schlock, I highlight it to critique the piggish back-to-the-’60s attitude reflected in the content, which is freely available to all who can read (including, presumably, fourth graders who get browsing time in school). And I want to make sure that my readers can see for themselves that, no, I am not overreacting.

The list includes:

  • Princess Leia (“Star Wars”): “Leia is a twin. And we all know being a twin totally doubles your pleasure, doubles your fun.”
  • Sil (“Species”): “Raise your hand if you know a chick whose primary — nay, ONLY — goal is to get it on.”
  • Seven of Nine (“Star Trek: Voyager”): “She’s used to holographic relationships, which means you get to go with the guys to the game while your hologram is wiping her tears during that Chick Flick you’re dying to never see.”
  • Leela (“Futurama”): “She can’t exactly be all up in your business. It’s not like she can sleep with one eye open.”
  • The alien queen (“Aliens”): “I mean, the chick is fertile. I’m not alone here … right? Have I mentioned she’s fertile?”
  • Leeloo (“The Fifth Element”): “She won’t say much, since she … well, can’t. One word, three syllables: MUL-TI-PASS!”
  • T’Pol (“Star Trek: Enterprise”): “You’ve got yourself a certified alien hottie! …While your chances of hooking with T’Pol are slim to none, your chances of one day meeting a Vulcan are…more likely than they were before. Using data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope scientists from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and the SETI Institute now claim that there’s a solar system which is a younger twin of our own, just 10.5 light-years from us.” (At last, science!)

While these revolting views are offered in the first person, the person who has offered them remains anonymous (for good reason?).

The Science Channel offers “more aliens and outer space” online, including “top 10 alien sightings,” “top 10 things aliens say behind our backs,” aaand…information “about the SETI Institute”!


I have my issues with the Science Channel, which offers slivers of science embedded in fluff and fantasy (a.k.a. crazy made-up stuff). The Science Channel, the self-described “home for alien programming” on TV, is owned by Discovery Communications, which bills itself as “the world’s #1 nonfiction media company reaching more than 2 billion cumulative subscribers in 220 countries and territories.” Discovery Communications earned $1.1 billion in net income on revenues of $5.5 billion in fiscal year 2013. Among its strongest series are “Amish Mafia,” “Fast ‘n’ Loud,” and “Naked and Afraid.” The corporation owns The Learning Channel, which airs programs such as “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Sister Wives”; and Animal Planet, whose programs include “Finding Bigfoot” and “Mermaids: The New Evidence.”

Very educational.

This year the Science Channel aired Season 3 of its TV series “Alien Encounters,” which mixes science with fiction to speculate on “the impact of aliens on humanity” (“Science Channel,” 2014). I’ve only watched one episode, as it caused me to beat my head against the wall.

A press release announcing Season 3 states: “How would the world react to an alien race arriving on Earth? How would the human race be forever changed by extraterrestrials? What would be the impact of human contact with aliens? With 74-percent of Americans believing in the existence of aliens and 15 million believing they’ve actually made contact with extraterrestrials, many people have burning questions about life beyond Earth and its impact on humans…. According to Science Channel general manager Rita Mullin, ‘Making contact with life outside of Earth is a source of endless fascination for our viewers. [‘Alien Encounters’] feeds their interest with the perfect blend of intriguing, speculative questions plus perspective from real experts, and information about the latest scientific advancements. With [this] one-a-kind series…and our annual ARE WE ALONE? event, viewers continue to turn to Science Channel as the home for alien programming on television’.”

Real experts, eh? As opposed to what other kind? (By the way, at least one of those experts works for the SETI Institute.)

According to The Futon Critic, a Web-based prime-time TV report, the June 17, 2014, episode of “Alien Encounters” ranked #47 on the Nielsen ratings list for the night, drawing an audience of 271,000 viewers including 102,000 adults ages 18-49. At #1 on the list for that night was “America’s Got Talent,” with “Extreme Weight Loss” at #7, and “Real Housewives of New York City” at #30. For Tuesday June 10, “Alien Encounters” ranked #48; for June 3, #44.

The Science Channel also has aired “Aliens: The Definitive Guide,” a two-part program billed asan ‘Encyclopedia Galactica’ of non-Earth life forms, and an investigation into the latest scientific understanding of life beyond planet Earth.” Says Debbie Myers, executive vice president and general manager of the Science Channel, “So many people are obsessed with the existence of aliens. ARE WE ALONE? ignites their imaginations with bold new questions, and engages current research happening in the field of extraterrestrial life. It’s programming that asks questions and makes you think. We hope ARE WE ALONE? advances the conversation even further.”


By the way, a one-hour prime-time TV program typically will feature 40 minutes of content and 20 minutes of advertising. Web sites and other promotional tools for these programs are loaded with ads as well. The primary purpose or function of all this content is to make money. (See: Discovery Communications.) 

Talk amongst yourselves.


Asteroid survey? Asteroid retrieval? Scientists weigh in


Credit: ray

Last week’s meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Washington, D.C., was marked by hours of prickly discussion about NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Consequently, the meeting prompted a number of reports over the past few days.

Though I attended this meeting, I won’t repeat here what’s already been covered elsewhere. Space Policy Online, Space News, and The Space Review have all provided accurate summaries of ARM discussions at last week’s meeting. I will report on some other items discussed at the meeting, in particular the status of the B612 Foundation’s Project Sentinel.

At SBAG’s last meeting in January, NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) provided a briefing on the agency’s Asteroid Initiative, including plans for the ARM. At that time scientists expressed considerable skepticism about the feasibility, utility, and scientific value of the ARM (I attended that meeting, too).

The Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate has a role in the ARM: to identify potential “target” asteroids. The NEO Observations Program is also involved in interagency and international discussions regarding planetary defense (assessing the risk of asteroid impacts with Earth and planning for impact mitigation). (Full disclosure: My work is funded in part by the NEO Observations Program. No one asked me to write this post.) Many SBAG scientists are questioning whether the ARM will yield useful scientific data or make a meaningful contribution to planning for planetary defense. They’re suggesting that robotic missions would be more useful, not to mention more affordable.

This time around, NASA’s HEOMD sent a team of representatives to brief the SBAG on ARM, claiming they’ve made a lot of progress since January. After all those briefings, however, scientists were still expressing considerable skepticism.

Following its January meeting, the SBAG published a list of “findings,” including the following two items:

“NEO Survey Telescope.  NASA’s Asteroid Initiative places emphasis on the exploration of near-Earth asteroids for planetary defense, science, and resource utilization.  However, the necessary knowledge concerning the distribution of these objects and their respective characteristics is inadequate in order to successfully formulate NASA’s plans for accomplishing the Asteroid Initiative. SBAG reiterates its previous findings that support the importance of a space-based survey telescope to NASA SMD and HEOMD goals and objectives.  Although it is commendable that NASA is exploring alternative options for obtaining these data, a space-based NEO survey asset returns the greatest value with respect to exploration, planetary defense, science, resource utilization and does so in the most cost effective manner. Proper implementation of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative would best be served through a peer-reviewed NEO survey telescope mission that is funded as an agency asset. Such a foundational asset that provides essential data to aid the overall long-term objectives of NASA should be supported across the entire agency and not only through the SMD NEO Program.”

Establishment of a Planetary Defense Coordination Office. The 2010 NASA Advisory Council Planetary Defense Task Force, following the NASA Authorization Acts of 2005 and 2008 that affirmed the need for the establishment of policy with respect to threats posed by near-Earth objects, recommended that NASA establish a Planetary Defense Coordination Office that would coordinate planetary defense activities across NASA, other U.S. federal agencies, foreign space agencies, and international partners. This has not yet been realized, and SBAG reiterates the importance of establishing such an office.”

When the SBAG publishes findings from last week’s meeting, these two items will likely be on the list again.

Given all the attention paid to ARM at last week’s meeting, B612 mission scientist Marc Buie’s briefing on Project Sentinel escaped media scrutiny. However, it did not escape the scrutiny of SBAG members.

Project Sentinel is the B612 Foundation’s proposal to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope. B612 has a Space Act agreement with NASA under which the two signatories are to exchange data and expertise (but no funds).

Buie provided scant information on the status of Project Sentinel. (The last project status update posted on B612’s web site is dated September 2013.) SBAG chair Nancy Chabot inquired about the status of the project and the Space Act agreement, expressing concern that NASA might be relying on B612 to deliver a space-based survey telescope rather than pursuing alternate plans.

NASA’s Asteroid Initiative includes, in addition to ARM, an “Asteroid Grand Challenge” to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them.” Some members of the NEO community wonder how this challenge can be met without a space-based survey telescope. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposal to NASA’s Discovery mission program for a space-based NEO survey telescope was not selected for funding. At last week’s SBAG meeting, some scientists expressed the view that it was not selected because no National Academy of Sciences decadal survey of priorities in space science has identified such a project as a science priority and because NASA’s SMD has not embraced planetary defense as part of its mission.

Commenting on Buie’s briefing, NASA NEO Observations Program executive Lindley Johnson said B612’s Space Act agreement specifies technical and schedule milestones, none of which B612 has met to date. The first technical milestone should have been met a year ago in order to meet the first schedule milestone, he noted. Buie said that doesn’t mean anything because the SAA remains in effect indefinitely. “That’s not true,” Johnson responded, “it’s under review right now.”

Over the past year or so, B612 appears to have been working hard at publicity and fund-raising. The foundation has not, as yet, divulged how much money it’s raised for Sentinel. Regarding funding, Buie told SBAG, “I’m happy to report that we’re talking to the right people…we just have to bring them along.”

That’s all, folks.


Human space flight: still problematic




I’ve been puzzling over what to say about the National Research Council’s latest report on NASA’s human space flight program – Pathways to Exploration: Rationales and Approaches for a U.S. Program of Human Space Exploration, released June 4. It’s a good report, very meaty – so meaty that I’m guessing only a few dozen policy wonks like me will actually read much beyond the summary.

NASA can’t get people to Mars unless it gets a considerably bigger budget, the study group that produced the report concluded.

It’s not the first time a blue-ribbon study group came to this conclusion (see, for example, Augustine 1990, below).

For NASA to continue on its present course of human space flight “is to invite failure, disillusionment, and the loss of the longstanding international perception that human spaceflight is something the United States does best,” the group asserts in its report.

We’re already well on the way to this place.

At a June 25 House hearing on the new report, study co-chairs Mitch Daniels and Jonathan Lunine called for “realism” in space policy and planning – about public opinion, risks, costs, technical challenges, and historical rationales. And they urged NASA to adopt “principles and decision rules” that will help it map a pathway to landing humans on Mars, eventually.

Political realism is necessary, too.

House Science Committee Democrats said in a statement following the hearing that Daniels and Lunine “emphasized the need for sustained investments in the U.S. human space exploration program over multiple Congresses and Administrations in order to commit to a pathway approach and successfully achieve a human mission to Mars. Specifically, both Governor Daniels and Dr. Lunine emphasized that if budgets continue to only increase at the rate of inflation, the goal of landing humans on Mars will never be attained. The co-chairs also made it clear that regardless of the pathway that is adopted, there needs to be consistency over a long period of time that survives the changing U.S. political landscape.”

They’re right, of course. However, the reality is that without changing our system of government, it does not seem possible to protect human space flight plans and goals from changes in the political environment.

The study group examined all the various rationales offered for investments in human space flight and found each one of them flimsy at best. For example, “the level of public interest in space exploration is modest,” the report notes, “relative to other public policy issues” (see Chapter 3 for details). And “any defensible calculation of tangible quantifiable benefits” of human space flight “is unlikely to ever demonstrate a positive economic return on the massive investments required” to sustain it. “Arguments for Apollo program spending – national defense and prestige – seem to have especially limited public salience” today.

Will the space community stop claiming that everybody loves NASA? Will the space community stop trying to project the cash return on every dollar invested in human space flight? Will human space flight advocates stop trying to invoke “the spirit of Apollo” 50 years after the fact?

Not likely.

As noted in the new report (p. 1-11), “all the blue-ribbon and advisory panels formed to recommend a course of action for human spaceflight…have focused on a set of key goals that are surprisingly uniform across the decades, especially since 1969” – that is, back to the Moon and on to Mars….

…At least until the Obama administration’s baffling embrace of the idea of sending humans to asteroids and helping to incubate an asteroid mining industry. Study co-chair Daniels said at the hearing this week that his study group “had testimony from leaders of every major space program and they lack enthusiasm for [the] Asteroid Redirect Mission” (thanks to Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online for her Twitter stream from the hearing, out of which I lifted this quote).

What will come of this latest NRC report?

I’d guess not much – same as with the NRC’s 2009 report, America’s Future in Space:Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs,and the NRC’s 2012 report, NASA’s Strategic Direction and the Need for a National Consensus (a report on a study of rationales and goals of the U.S. civil space program).

For that matter, what has come of the last 30 years worth of reports on long-term goals for space exploration, which this latest NRC study group considered in some way or form (see p. 2-18)? The Paine commission report (Pioneering the Space Frontier), 1986; the Ride report (NASA Leadership and America’s Future in Space, 1987; NASA’s 90-Day Study (the Space Exploration Initiative), 1989; the U.S. Advisory Committee on the Future of the U.S. Space Program (a.k.a. the Augustine report), 1990; the Synthesis Group report (America at the Threshold), 1991; the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (Seeking a Human Spaceflight Program Worthy of a Great Nation), 2009? What was wrong with them?

The new NRC report identifies two “enduring questions…that serve as motivators of aspiration, scientific endeavors, debate, and critical thinking in the realm of human space flight”: “How far from Earth can humans go? What can humans discover and achieve when we get there?”

What this study group was NOT asked to do is consider whether human space flight is necessary, whether human space flight serves the public good.

Too bad….

As Daniels testified at the hearing, his study group came down in favor of continuing the U.S. human space flight program saying, “because we became convinced through lengthy discussion and analysis that a combination of what we call the pragmatic and aspirational rationales, including the human impulse to explore and search for new knowledge in places we have never been, justifies the cost, risk and opportunities associated with sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.”

I’m not convinced.

The estimable Rep. Johnson has put the burden on Congress to effect change. “As Members of Congress, the ball is now in our court…. We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t…. Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”



Disruptive innovation: progress in sheep’s clothing




Over the past few years I’ve been hearing quite a bit from certain corners of the space community, including certain corners of NASA, about the need for disruptive innovation in the U.S. space program.

I’ll offer just a few examples.

On a Web site where he peddles himself as a speaker-for-hire, Peter Diamandis – would-be asteroid miner, co-founder of Singularity University and head of the X Prize Foundation — offers talks on the topic of “exponential technologies causing disruptive innovation…. He provides key insights on how human society has transformed from “Local & Linear” to one that is now “Global & Exponential,” and how this change is accelerating disruptive stress or disruptive opportunity depending on the company’s point of view.”

NASA Tech Briefs offers a link to a webinar on “designing disruptive technology for a sustainable future.”

Testifying at a December 2012 hearing on the future of NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen, Professor for Space Science and Aerospace Engineering and Associate Dean for Entrepreneurial Programs at the University of Michigan, made the case for disruptive innovation made the case for disruptive innovation at NASA. “Disruptive programs overturn old paradigms, create new markets and engender new value systems.”

Now Harvard history professor Jill Lepore offers an excellent critique of the ideology of disruptive innovation, revealing how it is the centuries-old dogma of progress dressed up in 21st century clothes. In The June 23 issue of The New Yorker – “The disruption machine: what the gospel of innovation gets wrong” – Lepore dissects the idea of disruptive innovation, as propagated by Clayton Christensen in his 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, 1997), Josh Linkner (The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation, 2011], and others. She writes: “The idea of innovation is the idea of progress stripped of the aspirations of the Enlightenment, scrubbed clean of the horrors of the 20th century, and relieved of its critics. Disruptive innovation goes further, holding out the hope of salvation against the very damnation it describes: disrupt, and you will be saved.”

Well said.

I’ve been studying the history of the idea of progress since the 1990s. In a paper published in 2007, I wrote about the idea of progress as it’s embedded in the ideology of space flight:

“Christopher Lasch [The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics, 1991] contrasted the pre-modern, Christian idea of progress – ‘the promise of a secular utopia that would bring history to a happy ending’ – with the modern idea – ‘the promise of steady improvement with no foreseeable ending.’ While J.B. Bury [The Idea of Progress, 1920] identified progress as an idea originating in the modern era, Robert Nisbet [History of the Idea of Progress, 1980, 1994] traced its roots to ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and he documented how it evolved to take on the qualities of destiny and ‘historical necessity.’ This modern idea of necessary and inevitable forward movement is deeply embedded in the cultural narrative of U.S. space flight.

The idea of progress became the dominant idea in Western thinking in the period 1850-1900, according to Nisbet, serving as ‘the developmental context for other [key] ideas’ such as freedom. Nisbet credited 19th century natural philosopher Herbert Spencer with melding the ideas of progress and freedom, in declarations of ‘the rights of life and personal liberty,’ ‘the right to use the Earth,’ ‘the right of property,’ and ‘the right to ignore the state.’ Spencer’s classical liberal thinking is noticeable in the rhetoric of space advocacy.

From the 17th through the 20th century, as Walter McDougall wrote […the Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, 1985, 1997], the Western scientific worldview…’elevated technological progress…to the level of moral imperative.’ Science and technology became the means of American progress, and conquest and exploitation became the morally imperative method.”

Back to Lepore’s critique…. Citing Linkner, she sums up the ideology of disruptive innovation this way: “Forget rules, obligations, your conscience, loyalty, a sense of the commonweal. If you start a business ands it succeeds…sell it and take the cash. Don’t look back. Never pause. Disrupt of be disrupted.”

How depressing.

As always, I’m not asking my colleagues in the space community not to have beliefs or embrace ideologies. All I’m asking is that we all acknowledge and understand the belief systems we do have and the ways in which our beliefs motivate our actions.

If you don’t like my take on Lepore’s critique, you can read another one in Inc. magazine.



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