Moon, Mars, billionaires: what’s going on?



On, in an opinion piece titled “Sorry America, We’re Not Going Back To The Moon,” astrophysicist Ethan Siegel comments on the current administration’s assertion that the U.S. will return people to the Moon.

“Trump,” Siegel writes, “made a promise that should sound familiar to American citizens, as many incoming presidents (including Obama and both Bushes) have made similar plans and proclamations. Like all plans, to bring this one to fruition will require a tremendous investment of resources: in people, in equipment and facilities, in research and development, and in terms of money as well. With no plans for adequate, additional funding to support these ambitions, these dreams will simply evaporate, as they have so many times before.”

I agree. Since I joined the space community in 1983, I’ve been watching various iterations of “the Moon-Mars thing” come and go. It’ll cost too much, and the rationale for pursuing these goals is not compelling enough to justify the cost.

Meanwhile, in an article titled “Billionaires May Be the Future of Space Policy. Here’s What They Want: Space nations, UFOs, and Mars colonies are on the wish list,” Foreign Policy staff writer Emily Tamkin reports, “a number of private individuals of great wealth are charting the future of space policy, whether through money or influence….” She cites billionaires Igor Ashurbeyli (net worth unknown) and his wacky idea to create a “space nation” called Asgardia, Elon Musk (net worth $20+ billion) and his disturbing focus on colonizing Mars, Yuri Milner ($3.5 billion) and his fringe-y Breakthrough Starshot and Breakthrough Listen initiatives.

And there are more. For example, there’s Jeff Bezos (net worth $98 billion, give or take) – the richest man in the world, depending on what day it is (his net worth depends on the price of stock in Amazon). The Scotland Herald, in an August report on “The world’s weirdest billionaires,” quoted Bezos as saying, “People will visit Mars, they will settle Mars, and we should because it’s cool.”

(Because it’s cool? Oy vey….)

And then there’s Richard Branson ($5 billion), who, along with Bezos, intends to make money off of space tourism (which I view as “joy rides for the ultra-rich”). Tamkin reports that Branson said in October on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that he and Bezos “are more interested in how we can use space to benefit the Earth.”

Really? How does space tourism benefit the Earth?

Meanwhile, Florida Today reported yesterday that the Brevard County (FL) board of commissioners “approved a plan that would allow the county to borrow money to pay for an $8 million economic incentive to rocket manufacturer Blue Origin…. The cash grant to the company was approved in 2015 by the County Commission and the North Brevard Economic Development Zone board.”

Wow. A county government is going to borrow money in order to give it to a billionaire. Why would a businessman worth $98 billion need an $8 million “incentive” to do business in Brevard County?

Branson’s and Musk’s space enterprises have also benefited from local, state, and federal “incentives” and other subsidies.



Xmas in Florida



When David and I moved from Arlington VA to Sarasota FL, I’d intended to start a new blog dedicated to our new life here. I have not done so (yet…). So I’m going to use my science and policy blog to post a holiday “letter” to my family and friends (and maybe you’ll read some of my other posts…).

First, the good news: we LOVE it here! We’re staying (and living here year-round). We are renting a nice house (3 BR 2 BA, pool/lanai). See my first report here.


On our neighbors’ front lawn: Santa in board shorts, getting a tan.

The bad news: my house in Arlington VA, on the market since July, has not yet sold. I changed real-estate agents in November and then invested most of my savings (ouch) in “updating” the house per agent’s instructions. He held his first open house yesterday. Fingers crossed. We cant wait for the house to sell, as we are itching to buy a home here and make it our own – hang up all our pictures, unpack all our knickknacks, paint our living room anything but brown (most of our rental home is some shade of brown, my least favorite color)….

I’m now semi-retired and continue to work part-time (16 hours a week) for NASA’s astrobiology program and planetary defense coordination office on communication issues. I enjoy the work, and I miss being in the thick of things in D.C. (though I couldn’t wait to get away from it…).

I found summer in Sarasota more comfortable than summer in the DC area. I don’t think the temperature ever went above 87 this summer. Yes, it’s humid. But the air is clean, it always smells fresh here. During June-July-August, almost every day brings rain. Typically, huge black storm clouds roll in from the Gulf of Mexico mid- to late afternoon and drop torrential rain for 20-30 minutes. Then the sun comes out, the air is clean. It’s so dramatic, and I love watching it!

With all that rain, the landscape here is lush and gorgeous. All sorts of palms, flowering shrubs, exotic foliage plants. And the bird life here isrich – especially the water birds. The sandhill cranes are impressive (I saw them “dancing” once, on the golf course – look up “sandhill crane dancing” on YouTube!).


Sandhill cranes

One morning last week, in one little pond, I saw seven wood storks and seven great blue herons (plus an assortment of egrets). My favorite bird so far here is the black-crowned night heron.


Black-crowned night heron

Limpkins are interesting, too. The first time I heard a limpkin calling (of course I didn’t know it was a limpkin, because I couldn’t see it), I thought someone was beating a child. Then I thought, no, someone is torturing a cat. Then I said, no, nobody’s running to the rescue. The limpkin screams – and I mean, screams – loudly, and often, and the sound travels quite a distance.



The community we live in – The Meadows, which we like very much – has lots of ponds and canals. So, yes, we have alligators. I’ve only seen two so far – one big guy, 6 footer, and one little guy, 3 footer.

Both David and I spent time in our pool almost every day until Thanksgiving. After a few “chilly” days (60 degrees F. is considered cold here), the temperature of the pool water dropped below a comfortable point. Today, December 18, it’s in the low 80s, sunny, just lovely. Maybe the pool will warm up in time for Xmas! Meanwhile, I’m walking for an hour (about 3 miles) every morning, when it’s quiet and lovely.

We’ve been to the beach just a few times: Lido Beach, Siesta Beach (the biggest), and Turtle Beach (at the tip of Siesta Key). They’re all beautiful, and we have many more beaches to explore. Most people here are fiercely protective of their natural environment, so the beaches, the Gulf, Sarasota Bay, preserved land are very clean. It’s now “season” here – meaning that part-time residents are returning for the winter. So the beach parking lots are getting pretty full.

We had a very stressful week here in September, anticipating and then sitting through Hurricane Irma. You can read about that experience here. I’m grateful that Sarasota was very well prepared for the storm (though trash collectors did not get around to picking up our storm debris until after Thanksgiving!).

David and I have been volunteering at special events held at the Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium. People rent the place for parties, weddings…. As event volunteers, we’re stationed at outdoor or indoor aquarium exhibits, answering questions about the animals and making sure that people don’t spill their drinks into the water (some of the tanks are open). David’s favorite exhibit is the shark tank.


Mote’s shark tank

My favorite creature so far is the Mexican four-eyed octopus (no, it doesn’t really have four eyes). I’m also trying to get involved as a volunteer for educational programs there.


Mexican four-eyed octopus

I’ve joined the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota and am a member of its social justice committee. The people in the congregation are warm and friendly. I’ve also joined a spiritual discussion group at the church. I’ve also joined the Women’s Interfaith Network here and belong to a WIN monthly lunch group.

The worst thing that’s happened to us since we moved here is that our beloved cat Giovanni died this fall. He was 20 years and 8 months old. He just wore out, poor thing. I cried for 2 days and then became obsessed with adopting a new baby. The following week, I found Fritzie at a shelter. He was 12 weeks old, friendly, confident, and of course adorable. He brings us much joy – even as he’s climbing the furniture….


Fritzie at four months.

We wish you a fabulous holiday and hope you don’t spend a bit of it stuck in traffic or an airport or a snowstorm!

Remember the ozone hole?



Did you know that this year, the Antarctic ozone hole – a phenomenon first identified in 1985 – was the smallest it’s been since 1988?

I missed this bit of science news when it was issued by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on November 2.

As you’ll recall, researchers determined that the cause of ozone depletion over Antarctica was the release of chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere. We need that ozone: it protects life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Studies have shown that in the Antarctic, the amount of [UV radiation] measured at the surface can double during the annual ozone hole.”

Here’s the good news/bad news from NASA and NOAA:

“Although warmer-than-average stratospheric weather conditions have reduced ozone depletion during the past two years, the current ozone hole area is still large because levels of ozone-depleting substances like chlorine and bromine remain high enough to produce significant ozone loss. Scientists said the smaller ozone hole extent in 2016 and 2017 is due to natural variability and not a signal of rapid healing…. Scientists expect the Antarctic ozone hole to recover back to 1980 levels around 2070.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement that has led to an abatement of atmospheric ozone depletion. (As yet, I have heard no rumors that the United States intends to abrogate this treaty.) In 1995, the United Nations declared September 16 World Ozone Day (I missed that holiday…).

How did I come around to collecting a few facts about atmospheric ozone right now? Well, a scientist friend of mine asked me a few questions about geoengineering, prompted by a November 8 House hearing on the subject, and, somehow, poking around for information on geoengineering led me to poke around for information on ozone depletion….

The purpose of the hearing was to review the status of geoengineering research in the United States. Witnesses were Phil Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons labs); Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center (a Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank), Douglas MacMartin, a senior research associate at Cornell University; and Kelly Wanser, director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

Geoengineering technology options discussed at the hearing were carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management, or SRM – also known as “sunlight reduction methods” (“marine cloud brightening” is one method of SRM).

Witnesses were appropriately cautious in their statements for the hearing, acknowledging the potential promise of geoengineering techniques as relatively short-term options for mitigating climate change while recognizing the need to continue working on longer-term options to slow global warming. As far as the state of the art of geoengineering, it’s clear that none of the methods discussed at the hearing are ready for prime time. All witnesses recommended more federal funding for research into these techniques.

In his written testimony, Rasch said,  “Research on geoengineering strategies is still in its infancy, but suggests they may represent a promising complement to other responses to climate change…. [They] might help ‘buy time’ for other mitigation and adaptation measures to be put in place. However, it isn’t yet clear whether geoengineering should be part of solution strategies to address observed and anticipated changes in the climate system—we simply do not yet know enough about the potential benefits or risks that might be associated with large-scale deployment of geoengineering technologies…. Even if they are determined to be viable, geoengineering strategies won’t be a magic bullet that eliminates the need for emissions reductions or adaptation measures. While geoengineering technologies could be effective at offsetting some of the effects of climate change, they will not compensate for all of them, and may introduce their own problems.”

(Well said.)

Majkut agreed. Geoengineering technologies, he said, “could be used to prevent some degree of global warming and its attendant effects over short timescales, but there are major scientific questions about the trade-offs associated with using them.”

MacMartin agreed. He stated up front that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most important component of a strategy to respond to climate change…. Geoengineering…could be an additional and valuable part of an integrated strategy for managing climate change [but it] cannot be a substitute for cutting emissions… Counteracting rising greenhouse gas concentrations would require continually increasing the amount of geoengineering, leading to increased side effects and rapid warming if deployment were ever interrupted.”

Wanser suggested that a federal geoengineering research program “may require $5-10m a year to enable early technology development and field work.”

(I did not observe the hearing, so I can’t comment on Q&A with members.)

I’ve been listening to scientists and engineers talk about geoengineering for more than 30 years. (I’ve also listened to a lot of talk in the aerospace community about the prospect of geoengineering – in this case called “terraforming” – the climate of Mars to make it suitable for human habitation. I think this idea is nuts, not to mention perhaps immoral.) I don’t expect so see a larger federal research effort in geoengineering to develop in the foreseeable future, especially in the current political environment, with an administration that’s refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change.

Geoengineering is technological intervention to change a planet’s climate. We’ve already geoengineered Earth’s climate, by the profligate burning of fossil fuels. I’d say we need to focus on “reverse geoengineering”….

What’s the National Space Council for?



Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, the current Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, has beat me to the punch with her commentary for Scientific American on the public spectacle that was the first meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), which took place October 5.

It was a prototypical dog-and-pony show (see photo) – “an elaborate display or presentation, especially to promote something,” by dictionary definition. What was this event promoting? Deregulation and other government actions to boost profits for the aerospace industry.

NASA televised and webcast the meeting. (I watched the webcast.) The event actually had a title (!!): “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council.” It was staged – and I mean “staged” – in front of the space shuttle Discovery (and near the SR-71 spy plane) at the National Air and Space Museum’s cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the NSC, and he served as the master of ceremonies for this event. Here are some samples of Pence’s scripted, flag-waving rhetoric (with my own comments):

  • Discovery is “a national treasure.” (See my chapter in AIAA’s 2013 book, Space Shuttle Legacy: How We Did It/What we Learned. I wrote about “the shuttle as a cultural i”)
  • “We will once again astonish the world…as we boldly go…”
  • “America will lead in space once again.” (The U.S. spends more on space than all other space-faring nations put together.)
  • “America seems to have lost our edge in space.” (A refrain we’ve heard since at least the 1980s – when I entered the space community.)
  • We need “a coherent policy, a coherent vision.” (Another refrain we’ve heard at least since the ‘80s…)
  • Since Apollo, the U.S. space program has “suffered from apathy and neglect.” (Really? NASA’s budget is around $18 billion a year. This number equates to apathy and neglect?)
  • We “will never again let America fall behind in the race for space.” (Why is it a race? Who’s running in this race? And toward what ends?)
  • “We will restore our proud legacy of leadership.” (Gone are the days when the U.S. can expect to be Number One, Boss of the World. Leadership these days requires dialogue, partnership, cooperation.)
  • “We will return American astronauts to the Moon” and then “to Mars and beyond.” (George H.W. Bush made this claim, couldn’t deliver. Ditto for George W. Bush. The Obama administration set its eyes on sending astronauts to an asteroid – who knows why – and under Obama, NASA beat the drum for “humans to Mars.”
  • “We must be as dominant in space as we are on Earth.” (Why?)
  • “Renew the American spirit itself.” (Empty words.)
  • According to the president, “it is America’ s destiny to be the leader of nations.” (Destiny is a religious concept. And the goal of being “the leader,” rather than “a leader,” is not viable in the current global environment. It hasn’t been for some time.)

Walkowicz comments, “Listening to Pence’s address echo across the hanger of space luminaries, the Discovery space shuttle peeking over his shoulder, I couldn’t help but find his narrative surreal. After all, some 250 miles over his head, Americans were nonchalantly plunging in orbit around our planet, tethered to the International Space Station as they busily engaged in the work of living in space.”

As Marcia Smith noted on Space Policy Online, the day before the event the Wall St. Journal published an op-ed by Pence stating that the president’s intent is to send people to the Moon and then on to Mars. Republican. “How that and other goals will be achieved,” Smith noted, “is not addressed other than to say that the Space Council ‘will look beyond the halls of government for insight and expertise’ and create a Users’ Advisory Group ‘partly composed of leaders from America’s burgeoning commercial space industry’.” Whatever that means….

At the NSC extravaganza, Cabinet secretaries and corporate executives were trotted out to play their parts in the spectacle:

From government: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense James Mattis; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao; Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke; Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney; National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster; Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats; Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States Michael Kratsios; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul J. Selva.

From industry: Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO, Lockheed Martin; Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO, Boeing; Dave Thompson, president and CEO, Orbital ATK (recently acquired by Northrop Grumman); Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO, SpaceX; Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin; and Fatih Ozmen, CEO, Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Here is how these companies ranked on a list of top 100 government contractors for fiscal year 2016, according to Aeroweb:

Lockheed Martin: $43.3 billion (#1) – in 2016, net sales=$47.2 billion, net earnings= $3.8 billion

Boeing: $26.4 billion (#2) – in 2016, revenues=$94.6 billion, net earnings=$4.9 billion

Orbital ATK: $2.3 billion (#22) – in 2016, revenues=$4.5 billion, earnings=$292.2 million

(Northrup Grumman: $12 billion (#5))

SpaceX: $1 billion (#52) – SpaceX is not publicly traded, so information on revenues and profits is not publicly available. See this posting on the Motley Fool.

Sierra Nevada: $1.2 billion (#44) – Sierra Nevada is solely owned by Fatih Ozman and his wife Eren Ozman. Information on revenues and profits is not publicly available.

Blue Origin (not on the list, privately held)

As I listened to these people reading their parts in this tightly scripted production, I kept thinking, Don’t they have better things to do?

The NSC meeting was a public spectacle. I’ll quote from my chapter (Chapter 7, p. 151) in the proceedings of NASA’s 50th anniversary history symposium:

“In his famous essay, “Society of the Spectacle,” published in 1967 at the peak of U.S. space frenzy, French critic Guy Debord (1931-1994) argued that in contemporary industrialized, commercialized society, image had supplanted reality as our social reality. He observed:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation…. Spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images…. The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible…. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact is already obtained by…its monopoly of appearance…. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the ruling production…. As information or propaganda, as advertisement or…entertainment, the spectacle [is] the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption….

In today’s ever-more-mass-media-saturated cultural environment, the society of the spectacle continues to thrive. Thanks to increasing numbers and varieties of media outlets and mass communication technologies and techniques, the U.S. space program is as much of a spectacle as it ever was, arguably even more so. Witness the NSC meeting.

Here are a few more quotes from the NSC meeting:

  • Marillyn Hewson: “Nothing better represents America’s optimism about the future than space.”
  • Dennis Muilenberg: “We are a part of the $80 billion a year favorable trade balance” that the U.S. aerospace industry accounts for.”
    • We support “comprehensive tax reform.”
    • “We must commit to an uninterrupted human presence in Earth orbit.”
  • Dave Thompson: “We should be bold in our aspirations.”
  • Gwynne Shotwell: We need “meaningful regulatory reforms…must remove bureaucratic practices” that slow down industry…“regulation written decades ago must be updated” if we want a strong U.S. space launch industry.
  • Bob Smith, Blue Origin: Our vision is “to enable a future in which millions of people are living and working in space.”

Pence asked his panel of experts, has the U.S. fallen behind in space? “How quickly can we get back in the forefront?” Hewson said “it is an imperative” to lead,” and “we have to vigilant” about maintaining leadership. Thompson said we can do it in five years.

Tillerson asked if international law posed “obstacles you are encountering.” Shotwell said not at the moment, “but these things are coming.” Mulvaney asked where the companies “need help on de-regulation.” Pence said, “Let’s work on streamlining regulations, removing bureaucratic hurdles” before the NSC’s next meeting.

We’re right back to the Reagan era of the 1980s – when I entered the aerospace community: deregulation, “commercial” development, deregulation, corporate tax breaks, deregulation. And so much tired, empty rhetoric. It’s discouraging. But I’ll keep paying attention.



Wise, and sobering, words on space policy



I haven’t been blogging much about space issues over the past few months. Current directions in civilian space exploration are disturbing. I’m referring primarily to the drive for sending people to the Moon and Mars and the concurrent drive to let private companies do whatever they want in space with little to no accountability.

We don’t have the money to send people to the Moon and Mars. I doubt that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have the money (no matter what they say). I don’t think it will happen any time soon. But the rhetoric of space conquest and exploitation is relentless, amplified by constant drum-beating in the mass media.

Today I have something worth blogging about – an excellent article that my friend Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese published in the October 12 issue of Nature. Joan is one of the most astute, well-informed, and nonpartisan space policy analysts around today.

Her commentary in Nature, “Build on the Outer Space Treaty,” is right on the mark. With space libertarians crawling out of the woodwork to tout their agenda of “less regulation,” “streamlined regulation,” “minimal regulation,” “permissionless innovation,” and so on, it’s refreshing to hear from a rational actor, with no financial interest in the advancement of the libertarian agenda of space colonization and exploitation.

“A lot has changed” since the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was ratified in 1967, as Joan notes.

Indeed. Fifty years have passed. Think about what has occurred during that time.

And then think about the current environment for space law and policy.

I agree with Joan that, “Fifty years on, the Outer Space Treaty [is] still appropriate. But interpretations of its provisions are, more than ever, being influenced by commercial interests and politics. Supplementary rules and norms are needed.”

We now have space businesses (and space advocacy groups) driven by libertarian ideology that have convinced our Republican-led Congress to pass laws authorizing U.S. businesses to pursue their dreams of space colonization and resource exploitation with little to no oversight. “Almost 50 commercial and non-profit organizations are listed in the informal directory of the Space Frontier Foundation…, which is committed to facilitating the human settlement of space. These companies are exploring ideas from satellite refuelling to mining asteroids for water and providing extraterrestrial human habitats,” Joan notes.

Witness the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015, and the pending American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act Free Enterprise Act of 2017. Whether these laws are in compliance with international law – primarily the Outer Space Treaty, which by the terms of the U.S. Constitution is “the law of the land” – is debatable.

My friend Joanne Gabrynowicz, an eminent space-law expert, told Legal Newsline earlier this year that these recently passed U.S. space laws won’t help regulate U.S. space activities. “Overall, these laws and bills are more politics than law and contain little substance… They have a lot of technical legal language, like ‘sense of Congress’ provisions that do not create law. In all, they are intended to appear like authentic law when, in reality, they embody a great deal of legal uncertainty.”

At a series of Senate hearings earlier this year on “Reopening the American Frontier,” so-called “commercial space” executives asked – of course – for minimal regulation of their activities. At a hearing on “reducing regulatory barriers and expanding American free enterprise in space” (April 26), Bigelow Aerospace president Bob Bigelow said it succinctly: “Less regulation is better.”

At a hearing focused on “how the Outer Space Treaty will impact American commerce and settlement in space” (May 23), University of Nebraska law professor Matt Schaefer and Laura Montgomery, former counsel to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, both testified that Article IX of the treaty – which directs signatories (including the U.S.) to “conduct exploration [of celestial bodies] so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary,…adopt appropriate measures for this purpose” – requires only consultation, not regulation.

Planetary protection experts disagree. For NASA-funded missions and experiments, compliance with the agency’s planetary protection policy is mandatory. “Commercial space” companies are arguing that they should not be required to comply with any sort of planetary protection policy, and, so far, the FAA commercial space office appears inclined to agree.

If, say, Elon Musk were to be able to build a human colony on Mars – a mission that I doubt will unfold in the near future – his project would certainly contaminate the planet for the purpose of scientific exploration for evidence of past or present martian life. Does one single billionaire have a right to do it? Is this what “free enterprise” means? I’ll argue that we need to get a grip on how “free” enterprise should be – especially in outer space, which is not an exclusively U.S. domain.

At a hearing on “promoting partnerships between commercial space and the U.S. government to advance exploration and settlement” (July 13), Tim Hughes, SpaceX senior vice president for global business and government affairs, testified that his company’s goal is to make humanity a multiplanet species. We hear this claim from SpaceX principals and their fans on an almost daily basis. But, really, the goal of a business is to make money. Period. And though Hughes and his peers continue to argue for minimal government, in his testimony Hughes said the U.S. government needs to modernize launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base to meet the needs of “commercial” launch companies.

The more level-headed Jeff Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, said at the same hearing that while some of his colleagues have “this utopian view” of less government, he doesn’t agree. “One of the things that government does well is provide…basic infrastructure.” – Nanoracks is “leveraging” public investment in infrastructure – specifically, the International Space Station – to make money.

Now let’s get back to Joan’s commentary.

As all this talk of so-called commercial space development goes on, Joan writes, “conventional interests of prestige, geostrategic influence and military missions in space have come to the fore.” Here are some facts about the space policy environment that she highlights:

* “The number of countries, consortia and companies involved in space is growing. In 1959, when the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was formed, there were 24 members. Today, there are 84.”

* “The United States sees China’s encroachment on space as heightening the risk of a space war. China’s launch of a ‘science mission’ in May 2013 that nearly reached geosynchronous orbit (about 36,000 kilometres above Earth) caused quiet panic in the Pentagon and in US intelligence circles.”

* “Since 2013 [the U.S.] has been preparing for war in space, whatever that might look like. US officials are now actively exploring offensive and defensive space-based activities.”

* “Although weapons of mass destruction are banned in space, weapons in general are not.”

I find these facts sobering.

Meanwhile, advocates of an unfettered campaign of space conquest and exploitation continue to beat their drums. And here’s a deeply disturbing drumbeat: a Mars colonization “anthem” offered up by the ever-nutty Mars Society. “Rise to Mars! Men and women. Dare to dream! Dare to strive! Build a home for our children. Make this desert come alive!”

An anthem? Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing Leni-Riefenstahl-esque propaganda films advocating for the conquest of other planets. I don’t know whether to laugh it off or hide under my bed…. What about you?

Searching for life in the universe: how will we know it’s life?



Earlier this year I reported here on a December 2016 astrobiology workshop held by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB), at NASA’s request. The National Academies has now published the proceedings of this workshop, “Searching for Life Across Space and Time.” At 132 pages, it’s a dense but fascinating read, if you’re interested in the subject matter.

The subject matter is how to look for, identify, and verify evidence of extraterrestrial life.

The more we learn about life as we know it, and the more we speculate about life as we don’t know it, the more we explore other planetary environments in our solar system, and the more we discover about a wildly diverse population of extrasolar planets, the more complex the task of extraterrestrial life detection becomes.

The astrobiology community is focused on identifying reliable biosignatures – that is, signs of life that can’t be signs of something other than life. (Recall the 1996 claim of fossil evidence of microbial life in the martian meteorite ALH 84001 – a claim that continues to be disputed.) The primary challenge here is that there is no simple answer to the question, “What is life?”

At the SSB workshop, experts focused on four approaches to the search for evidence of life beyond Earth: in-situ detection of life as we know it on solar system bodies; remote detection of life as we know it on extrasolar planets; in situ detection of life as we don’t know it (a.k.a. “weird life”) on solar system bodies; and remote detection of life as we don’t know it on extrasolar planets.

Research into the origin (or origins) of life on Earth has yet to reveal exactly how non-life becomes life. At the workshop, astrobiologist John Baross suggested four approaches to the study of the origin of life: a “paleogenetics” approach, working backward in time by studying fossil evidence of ancient biology and prebiology; a “prebiotic chemistry” approach to identifying the chemical pathway (or pathways) to the simplest first life; the astrobiology approach, searching the cosmos for evidence of an independent genesis of life beyond Earth; and a synthetic biology approach, aimed at designing and building life in the laboratory.

Systems biologist Eric Smith posed these questions to the workshop: Is life a cosmic imperative? How would thermodynamics force life into existence? Is the existence of a biosphere an inevitable result of thermodynamics?

Astrobiologist Morgan Cable described three types of extraterrestrial plumes that could be sampled for evidence of life: volcanic plumes, cometary plumes, and plumes emitted by ocean worlds. Would it be possible to detect extant life by plume fly-throughs at several kilometers per second? She discussed some possible sampling techniques that might (or might not) be successful.

Rather than writing a long blog post, I’ve cherry-picked a few topics covered in this report, topics of particular interest to me. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look through the report’s table of contents, or read Chapter 7, which summarizes previous chapters.


Hurricane Irma: my observations

iss053e003631Hurricane Irma approaching south Florida, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

On Tuesday September 12, it’s a beautiful mid-hurricane-season day here in Sarasota, Florida, where I now live. My partner David and I, relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area just three months ago, came through Hurricane Irma unscathed.

Miraculously (I know, not a very scientific word), we did not lose power. We suffered no damage to our (rented) property. Even our pool cage is intact. We were not worried about flooding, as we are about eight miles way from the Gulf of Mexico, equidistant from rivers in the area, and at 30 feet above sea level – the highest elevation in Sarasota County (higher than all but one of the county’s emergency shelter locations). Near the peak of the storm, David worried that our pool would overflow and possibly flood the house, so he went outside (in 50-mph winds) and drained some water out of it.

Our neighbors on both sides spent Sunday night elsewhere. They’re all home now, and all is well. I spoke to another neighbor this morning, who spent Sunday night in a shelter with 3000 other people and 1000 dogs (including her own). She said all were very well behaved.

Nonetheless, it’s been a terrifying time here. Today is the first time in at least a week that I feel free of fear and anxiety.

We are not in a flood/evacuation zone where we live (“know your zone” is a message we heard from multiple sources over and over again.) Nonetheless, at the urging of family and friends, we left our Sarasota home Thursday morning Sept. 7 at 8 am, with the aim of reaching northern Virginia by Friday evening. We brought our 20-year-old cat, Giovanni, with us. Six and a half hours later, we’d traveled 150 miles on I-75 north. We pulled off the highway for gas and found that some stations were already out of fuel.

When we did find a truck stop with fuel, of course it was mobbed. The stop had a single entrance/exit – one lane each way. Panicked drivers were entering the stop in both lanes, making it impossible for vehicles to exit the stop. In the midst of this madness, David spoke with the truck-stop operator, who said he was in contact with other truck-stop operators going several states north. They were reporting that the situation was gridlock all the way.

We’d been listening to public radio stations all along the way, and we were not hearing any useful information about traffic conditions, hotel accommodations, fuel supplies moving north. I checked numerous web sites on my phone: Sarasota Highway Patrol, Florida DOT, I-95 web site, I-75 web site. Ditto.

David and I discussed and discussed and discussed the pros and cons of continuing north or turning around and heading back south, as we inched ahead at 10 miles per hour. We finally agreed that the risks of continuing north were equal to, or perhaps even greater than, the risks of returning home. So we returned. My level of anxiety dropped considerably – until Saturday….

On Thursday evening, our neighbors invited us to dinner and provided us with a lot of tips for storm preparation (for example: release the parking brake on your car, put it in neutral and gently roll it up against the inside of your garage door, for extra reinforcement). My friend Rob, who lives in Houston and just went through Hurricane Harvey (relatively unscathed), gave me a lot of good tips too – such as, have an axe ready in case you have to hack you way out through the roof of your home. Other friends advised us to stash important documents and other valuables in our dishwasher.

On Friday we continued preparations for Irma. At the urging of my friend Theresa in Venice, Florida, I went out in search of a car charger for my iPhone. I’d ordered one online that morning, but Theresa said, “Get one now, you won’t regret it.” At 6 pm on Friday, Best Buy was out of them, but Target came through.

Saturday and Sunday were terrible days. I was sick with fear. David was watching CNN and getting panicked. I begged him to switch to our Sarasota news channel, Suncoast News Network (SNN) – or better yet, to step away from the TV for awhile. By Sunday he’d been switching back and forth between CNN and SNN and looking out the window and realized that our local TV news staff, especially the two on-air meteorologists – Justin Moseley and Marco La Manno – were much better informed about local conditions than anybody else on the air. Even our local public radio station, based in Tampa, was only mildly helpful to us. Tampa and Sarasota are very different places, geographically and demographically.

As the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported yesterday, “By the time Hurricane Irma reached Sarasota County Sunday evening, conditions were more on par with a severe tropical storm than a major hurricane. The maximum sustained winds reported in Sarasota County fell between 40 and 50 mph, with gusts topping 70 mph at Sarasota-Bradenton airport and 80 mph in Venice, according to the National Weather Service. The area saw 5.31 inches of rain, somewhere between the initially predicted 0.86 inches and later forecasts of more than 8 inches. And the six to 10 feet of storm surge that was mentioned at every press conference about the hurricane manifested as 1.7 feet of storm surge at Port Manatee. That was not the way meteorologists predicted it would go.”

I try to avoid clichés, but in this case, it’s apt to say that we dodged a bullet.

I took a walk around our neighborhood this morning. I saw lots and lots of plant debris on the ground – to be expected, as our local environment is lush with vegetation. I saw one live-oak tree uprooted and toppled – but it did not damage any homes. That’s it. Roads are clear. Some gas stations here were pumping gas yesterday. Supermarkets are open today. Trash collection resumes tomorrow (Wed.).

In the course of my work with NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) (and past work with NASA’s Planetary Protection Office), I’ve paid close attention to issues in emergency and risk communication. And I’ve paid VERY close attention to communications about Irma during the past week, as Florida prepared for the storm and as it’s now beginning to recover.

How did state and local officials do on emergency and risk communications? How did the media do?

Florida governor Rick Scott stayed on message for days and days before Irma made landfall here. He met with the press every day. Message #1: If you are subject to mandatory evacuation, go as soon as possible. “We can’t save your property but we can save your lives.” Message #2: If you are told to evacuate and do not do so by the deadline we’ve established, we will not be able to rescue you during the storm. Plan for the worst. Local officials stayed on message too. (Another message from local officials: Once wind speeds reach 70 mph, emergency vehicles will be called off the road.) I give them an A. (I’m sure that over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing stories about communication failures here and there, and that’s okay, because it will help us all do better the next time around.)

Our daily paper, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, was an excellent source of information on how to prepare and what to expect. The paper removed its paywall for the duration of Irma and its aftermath. The paper delivered its Sunday edition on Saturday night. (This morning, Tuesday, the Monday edition was delivered.) The paper’s local news staff did their best to keep up with what was happening. Information on shelter locations, free sandbag distribution sites, what to expect at shelters and what to bring with you, and other “news you can use” ran in the paper for several days up to the storm, as did plans for school, airport, and other closings. I give them an A.

Our local Suncoast News Network gets an A-plus – especially its meteorologists. (See above.) National media? B-minus to C. Moseley and La Manno emphasized the top message: if you’re told to evacuate, do not hesitate. At some point I heard La Manno explain in detail what to expect if worst came to worst. He is a Florida native and so has experienced many hurricanes. I especially appreciated his explanation of what a hurricane sounds and feels like (Rob in Houston has been very helpful on this point, too). La Manno said we’d be terrified by the sounds outside, but if we didn’t feel our house moving, we should stay put. He was very good at calmly and clearly explaining many scary things.

CNN, as to be expected, sensationalized (see above). I told David that this is the way cable news gets you to stay glued to the tube (watching all those commercials). National media are good at keeping us sitting in our seats, with loud music, scary video, and hyberbolic rhetoric, but they cannot provide much information in an emergency that’s useful at the local level. Watching cable TV during an event like Irma is like watching a disaster movie – except this time you feel like you’re in it.

As to social media, in a situation like the one we just experienced here, they are invaluable. I had family, friends, neighbors, our property manager, our realtor, and our power company (Florida Power and Light) in my cell phone. I’d signed up my phone number for Red Alert. (I did not receive any alerts during Irma.)

Texting is especially invaluable. Facebook, too. Our entire social network was in constant communication with us by phone, email, Facebook and Twitter before and after. As soon as I woke up Monday morning (at 2:50 am) and realized the coast was clear (figuratively speaking), I started texting everybody I could think of and emailing everybody else. Thanks to our “evil” telecommunications companies (in our case, Frontier and Verizon), lines of communication have remained fully functioning.

Interestingly, I heard nothing from FEMA directly during this period. I only went to the FEMA web site once, as I was getting all the information I needed from our newspaper, SNN, and the Sarasota County government. I’m assuming that our state and local officials were in constant communication with their FEMA regional colleagues.

David and I have had disagreements over which sources to trust. I tend to have more trust in government sources (“authority”) than he does. I’ve had to learn a lot about how government works in my decades of working in Washington. I’m a scholar of the media and know how to sort reliable sources and information from unreliable. David doesn’t trust my knowledge (“authority”). Thanks to my work with scientists who are finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids, predicting their future orbits, and identifying those that might come close to Earth, I have a good understanding of how much uncertainty surrounds long-term predictions.

The same goes for hurricane forecasting. Forecasters were describing in very good detail how much uncertainty was involved in their predictions of Irma’s movement until, perhaps, 24 hours before landfall in Florida (or less). They did a good job of explaining why longer-term predictions were uncertain. Local media accurately reported forecasters’ explanations. But many people can’t get comfortable with uncertainty. What they want to know is: Is my house gonna blow, or not? Forecasters can’t answer that question, nor can anybody else. (My friend Stephanie just a few miles north of us has power. Her neighbor across the street does not. Such a situation is unpredictable.)

It’s going to be the same in the event of a predicted catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth. (First, rest assured that, as of today, no known asteroid is on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years.) NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many other federal agencies and departments are already working together to plan for an impact emergency (see the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and the Charter of the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects). The best laid plans may go awry, though, if public trust in them is not strong. Reliable, informed, trustworthy spokespeople are critical resources in an emergency. It’s a challenge we have to work on.

It’s interesting to think about how differences in thinking about authority, legitimacy, trustworthiness, reliability play out from person to person, family to family, household to household in crisis situations.

During the Irma event, the local news sources I chose to trust did not mislead me or let me down. Monday morning, David was accusing CNN of reporting “fake news” on Sunday….

In terms of trustworthiness, my experience reinforces the idea that people tend to trust family and friends first, local leaders and government next, federal government last. I’m no fan of Governor Scott, but his messages were clear and sensible. I chose to heed them. In this case, I paid no attention to anything that might have been coming out of the White House, as I have no trust in the current administration.

I took a walk on Sunday morning, when all was still calm before the storm. I talked with a woman who was watching a flock of sandhill cranes. She was worried about what would happen to wildlife during the storm. I told her that since animals live outside all the time, they probably have ways of sheltering. We humans must continue to improve our ways of sheltering and taking care of each other, as sea surface warms and sea level rises.