Planetary defense: The white paper


While I’ve been dithering about how and what to blog about the fifth biennial Planetary Defense Conference (PDC), which I attended April 15-19, 2013, in Flagstaff, AZ, the conference organizers have completed a white paper on the conference proceedings, released this month.

Sponsored by 23 organizations, the 2013 PDC, an International Academy of Astronautics event, drew 225 attendees. Webcasting from the conference is archived here. The PDC white paper includes brief session-by-session summaries of presentations at the conference, a summary of comments and suggestions offered by attendees at the end of the conference, and a list of recommendations distilled from conference proceedings by the organizers.

Among these recommendation are to:

• Increase the rate of NEO discovery by launching space-based surveys, enhancing ground-based surveys, and upgrading radar surveys;

• Continue improving understanding of “the types of structures and materials that might be encountered by deflection/disruption missions and the responses to kinetic impact and other deflection/disruption efforts”;

• Designing kinetic impactor missions “and developing the necessary tools and payloads for these types of actions” to “verify model predictions and build confidence in our abilities to deal with an actual threat”;

• Continue tabletop NEO impact mitigation exercises “at the local, state, national and international level” to help disaster planning agencies be prepared; and

• Develop and implement “an overall coordination and communication plan for planetary defense related topics. Information on the nature of a NEO threat, possible deflection/disruption options, the evolution of a threat scenario, risk and uncertainty, and credible tools for simple deflection mission design should be added to currently available authoritative web pages.”

In my next blog post, I will offer some of my observations from the PDC. Stay tuned!


STEM program consolidation: what we know and what we don’t…


Two months have passed since the Obama administration released its fiscal year 2014 budget request with a proposal to consolidate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and public outreach (EPO) programs across the federal government’s research and development enterprise. Many people I’ve talked with in the space community remain confused over the origin and intent of this proposal – which is, I would emphasize, a proposal, now in the process of being reviewed by Congress.

As far as I can tell, this consolidation proposal is one of the results of a STEM education review that began in President Obama’s first term. I recall that one of the first wave of political appointees and other “new people” who joined NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at NASA headquarters was a White House Fellow who was tasked with initiating a review of all of NASA’s education programs.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) – which “advises the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs” (according to – has been responsible for overseeing the administration’s STEM education review. The 2010 America COMPETES Reauthorization Act directed OSTP to create an interagency committee to develop a federal STEM education five-year strategic plan. OSTP’s National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) – a cabinet-level council that is “the principal body within the Executive branch that coordinates science and technology policy across the federal research and development enterprise” – tasked its Committee on STEM Education (CoSTEM), co-chaired by the heads of OSTP and NSF, with developing this plan. In response, CoSTEM chartered a Federal Coordination in STEM Education (FC-STEM) Task Force to develop a federal “STEM Education 5-Year Strategic Plan,” with CoSTEM oversight. NASA’s education chief Leland Melvin and NSF’s education chief Joan Ferrini-Mundy co-chaired this task force. CoSTEM also chartered an NSTC “Fast-Track Action Committee on Federal Investments in STEM” (FISTEM) to conduct an inventory of federal investments in STEM education. FI-STEM’s “Federal Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Education Portfolio,” released in December 2011, guided the development of the five-year plan.

The new five-year STEM strategic plan, released May 31, identifies five priority STEM education investment areas and two coordination strategies for organizing federal investments in STEM education.

According to CoSTEM, the “diversity of missions and approaches” to STEM EPO across federal agencies “has over time led to an uncoordinated Federal investment in STEM education. And STEM programs have proliferated to the point where in FY 2012, there were 226 programs across 13 different agencies…. This distributed approach to making critical investments in STEM education has made it difficult to ensure that Federal efforts are coherent, strategic, and leveraged for greatest impact. At the same time, the activities supported by the agencies have important functions, and with coordination the combined efforts can unquestionably be greater.”

CoSTEM members from the White House include Steve Robinson of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC) and Mary Cassell of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Mary Cassell is a senior program examiner in the Education Branch of OMB and a member of OMB’s performance evaluation team. Her program “territory” includes elementary and secondary education issues and federal programs that support the President’s No Child Left Behind initiative. Before joining OMB in 1995, Cassell was a legislative aide for the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she worked on 1994 revisions to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that helped establish accountability and school improvement systems for public schools. Cassell has a master’s degree in public policy from Johns Hopkins University.

Steve Robinson is on assignment as a special assistant to the DPC from the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Robinson was a legislative assistant for education in the office of Senator Barack Obama. Robinson provided policy advice to Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and worked on education issues with the Obama-Biden presidential transition team. He joined the Department of Education in February 2009 and was assigned to the White House DPC in September 2009. Before coming to work for Obama in the Senate, Robinson was a high school science teacher in Eugene, Oregon, and a member of the faculty of the University of Massachusetts. He grew up in the Chicago suburbs and holds a Ph.D. in biology from the University of Michigan. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience at middle school, high school, and postsecondary levels.

The administration’s FY 2014 budget request proposes to consolidate federal STEM education and outreach activities by putting the Department of Education in charge of K-12 education efforts, NSF in charge of higher education programs, and the Smithsonian Institution in charge of public outreach activities. CoSTEM’s five-year strategic plan for STEM education provides the following rationales for these choices.

The Department of Education (ED) “supports programs to improve education in the United States and has a broad mission to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness. Although only a small fraction of ED’s funding supports specific STEM education programs, STEM initiatives have been a competitive priority in such significant programs as Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation Fund. Given its mission, ED does not have substantial direct access to science and engineering research activities or to a STEM workforce through substantial in-house or external research and development (R&D) programs, but is developing approaches to partner effectively with the other CoSTEM agencies. ED brings unmatched reach to schools, teachers, and students across the Nation, and so this plan provides approaches for leveraging these important connections. Furthermore, ED is building a staff with expertise in STEM teaching, and the National Center for Education Statistics cultivates data critical for STEM education research, including for efforts like the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) Mathematics and Science Education Research Grants Program.”

“In 2012, the Smithsonian [Institution] welcomed 30 million visitors to its public institutions and 103 million users to its website. In the context of Federal STEM activities, the Smithsonian has unique capabilities for serving as a clearinghouse that can reach a wide public audience.”

As for NSF, it has a long-standing role in advancing and improving undergraduate and graduate STEM education. Its Directorate for Education and Human Resources includes division on learning in formal and informal settings, graduate education, human resources development, and undergraduate education. According to CoSTEM, under the President’s plan, NSF “will increase its focus on improving the delivery of undergraduate STEM teaching and learning through evidence-based reforms, including a new $123 million program aimed at improving retention of undergraduates in STEM fields. NSF will also receive $325 million to expand and enhance its graduate fellowship programs, including creation of a new National Graduate Research Fellowship, using a common infrastructure at NSF to reach more students and offer a set of opportunities that address national needs and mission-critical workforce needs for the CoSTEM agencies.”

Top-priority STEM education investment areas identified in the CoSTEM five-year plan are to:

“1. Improve STEM Instruction. Prepare 100,000 excellent new K-12 STEM teachers by 2020, and support the existing STEM teacher workforce. (Lead: Dept. of Ed.)

2. Increase and sustain youth and public engagement in STEM. Support a 50 percent increase in the number of U.S. youth who have an effective, authentic STEM experience each year prior to completing high school. (Lead: SI)

3. Enhance STEM experience of undergraduate students. Graduate one million additional students with degrees in STEM fields over the next 10 years. (Lead: NSF)

4. Better serve groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. Increase the number of underrepresented minorities that graduate college with STEM degrees in the next 10 years and improve women’s participation in areas of STEM where they are significantly underrepresented.

5. Design graduate education for tomorrow’s STEM workforce. Provide graduate- trained STEM professionals with basic and applied research expertise, options to acquire specialized skills in areas of national importance and mission agency’s needs, and ancillary skills needed for success in a broad range of careers.”

Approaches to coordinating STEM education initiatives across agencies identified in the plan are to:

*  “Build new models for leveraging assets and expertise. Implement a strategy of lead and collaborating agencies to leverage capabilities across agencies to achieve the most significant impact of Federal STEM education investments; and

*  Build and use evidence-based approaches. Conduct STEM education research and evaluation to build evidence about promising practices and program effectiveness, to be used across agencies, and share with the public to improve the impact of the Federal STEM education investment.”

In a “table of potential actions/outcomes/metrics” in the CoSTEM plan, one will find the following potential near-term action: “Identify scientific and engineering assets that are being effectively leveraged in existing investments on engagement. Build additional infrastructure to provide access to Federal engagement assets.” The potential outcome of this action would be to “identify agencies and assets that have evidence-based models of best practices in engagement.” The desired metric would be the “number of collaborations that draw on STEM assets with evidence of impact for engagement.”

While identifying evidence of impact is not easy, it’s not unreasonable to ask for it. And how might an agency go about collecting such evidence? In Appendix B of the CoSTEM plan, “Investment design principles,” are these suggestions:

“CoSTEM recommends that agencies create or regularly update logic models or theory-of-action documents, management plans, and evaluation strategies for their investments, and address how their investments incorporate the applicable design principles. 
As appropriate, investments should have a logic model or explicit theory of action that describes:

Clear overarching goals, specific investment objectives and measurable outcomes.

How the investment helps to fulfill the agency’s mission and connects to agency education or 
STEM assets and STEM education goals.

Results of needs assessments, stakeholder input, or environmental scans that helped shape the goals, objectives, and outcomes.

Alignment with evidence-based practices, promising practices of experienced professionals, and relevant education research.

Strategic partnering within the agency, or with other federal agencies, education organizations, or stakeholders, or why partnerships are not appropriate.

How the investment activities are likely to advance the goals and objectives 
As appropriate, investments should have a management plan that describes:

Needed expertise, staffing plan and how expertise is assured, plans for professional development 
of staff to implement design principles, and assignment of accountability for outcomes.

Strategies for dissemination or scale-up of promising practices and lessons learned in the course 
of implementation.

Plans for budget allocation and cost-sharing.

Strategic partnering within the agency, or with other Federal agencies, education organizations, or 
stakeholders, or why partnerships are not appropriate.

Resources needed for evaluation and staffing.”

While references are not the only indicator of research put into a report, this five-year STEM plan has 146 references, FYI.

It’s interesting to speculate about who influenced whom in the preparation of the President’s budget request and the CoSTEM five-year plan.

On June 4, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing on the administration’s proposed STEM education reorganization, receiving testimony from NASA’s Leland Melvin; NSF director for education and human resources Joan Ferrini-Mundy; and OSTP director John Holdren.

According to the hearing charter, “Witnesses for [the] hearing were asked to discuss the National Science and Technology Council’s process for reviewing the STEM education portfolio across many different agencies and the role of CoSTEM in drafting the Administration’s proposed re-organization. They were also asked to discuss how decisions were made about program consolidations and cuts. Finally, they were asked how the proposed re-organization affects STEM programs nationwide.”

In his written testimony, Holdren said, “Guided by drafts of the [CoSTEM] strategic plan, the 2014 Budget [request] makes disciplined choices to consolidate and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs to make room for targeted increases…. These disciplined choices to consolidate and cut back lower-priority or narrow-purpose programs make room for targeted increases in high-priority areas.” In his testimony, Melvin said, “The Executive Office of the President recommended, and the President accepted, a FY14 Budget Request based in part on the work of the Committee on STEM, and the goals are the same.”

Speculation aside, the President’s consolidation proposal appears to be the product of a multi-year and very thorough review and analysis. Why it took people in the aerospace community by surprise is, well, surprising.

Conspiracy theories about alien life: the beat goes on…


Last month a group of “UfOlogists” and other parties interested in alien visitations to Earth met at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to discuss “the evidence of an Extraterrestrial presence engaging the human race.”

The so-called “Citizen Hearing on Disclosure” was a production of Steve Bassett’s Paradigm Research Group, which also produced a series of “X-Conferences” from 2004-2010. For years, Bassett and others involved in this event have been promoting the idea that the U.S. government has conspired to hide evidence from citizens that extraterrestrial intelligent beings have been visiting Earth. (Remember “The X-Files”? And remember that “The X-Files” was fiction…?)

The “witness list” for these “hearings” included many regulars on the UFO lecture circuit: former astronaut Edgar Mitchell; UFOlogist Stanton Friedman; and Steven Greer Founder of The Disclosure Project The Disclosure Project, The Center for the Study of Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CSETI) and The Orion Project. (Just FYI, among the 42 witnesses, only two were women….) It’s important to note that the government officials who spoke at this event were all FORMER government officials. It’s also worth noting that the fact that an event takes place at the National Press Club means only that the event’s organizers can afford to rent space there.

Why is Doctor Linda writing a post about this media event? Because a good friend of mine asked me about the veracity of some statements made there.

What follows is an excerpt from by dissertation (copyright 2005) – “Sex! Aliens! Harvard? Rhetorical boundary-work in the media (A case study of role of journalists in the social construction of scientific authority). The excerpt is from a chapter providing some comparative analysis of  “pseudoscientists, skeptics, and pseudoscientist-skeptics:”

“Blake (1979) called UFOlogy “a science in development,” characterizing it as “an intellectual product of social groups not of the intellectual elite” (p. 333). That the study of unidentified flying objects (UFOs) has come to be known as an “-ology” is but one small aspect of that development. As Collins and Pinch (1982, 1979) reported, acquiring the trappings of scientific legitimacy is a standard tactic of legitimation employed by paranormal scientists. And as Bourdieu (1991) observed, names and labels are important, serving as a means of creating social reality and the power and authority that operate in that reality. UFOlogy has created for itself the labels and other trappings of legitimate science, and media coverage plays a role in this construction of legitimacy. The contributions of journalists to construction of the concept of UFOs (and, concomitantly, UFOlogy) are worth examining, Blake (1979) said. While, as he noted, many journalists, official sources, and members of the scientific community have ridiculed reports of UFOs and deemed the subject “unsuitable for serious scientific study” (p. 330), nonetheless official attention and mass media coverage have made and kept UFOs and UFOlogy salient over the years (see Smith, 1983).

One strategy that UFOlogists have employed to establish credibility for UFOs as a legitimate research subject and themselves as legitimate researchers, Blake said, is to rhetorically construct UFOs as phenomena in the natural world, thus locating them inside the boundaries of legitimate science. Another strategy has been to locate the UFO phenomenon outside the boundaries of conventional science, where the authority of conventional science does not apply. UFOlogist  J. Allen Hynek (see below) sorted scientists working on “the UFO problem” into two groups: those who treat it “with ridicule and contempt, refusing even to examine it, denouncing the subject out of hand”; and those who “maintain — or might come to believe after examination — that there is a strong possibility that UFOs are purely psychological phenomena, that is, generated by individual or group mental activity” (Hynek, 1972, as cited in Smith, 1983, p. 37). In addition, UFOlogists reportedly are divided among those who locate the abduction phenomenon on their “turf” and those who argue that validating abduction accounts detracts from the scientific credibility of UFOlogy (Rosen, 1999). But even some of those UFOlogists who reject abduction claims reportedly may “go to great lengths…to establish that they believe in extraterrestrials and that that aliens have visited Earth” (n.p.).

UFOlogists have adopted the standard scientific methods of observing, data collection, record keeping and reporting. As Blake (1979) reported, UFOlogy “has developed as a distinct body of data studies by distinctly ‘credentialed’ investigators, some of them affiliated with organizations devoted to the study of UFOs” (p. 315). UFOlogists also have a substantial archive of official records to tap for validation (see Smith, 1983). The U.S. Air Force studied UFOs from 1948 to 1969, receiving over 12,000 reports of sightings and commissioning several projects such as Sign, Grudge, Blue Book, and the so-called Condon report. Records of congressional hearings on UFOs are available along with reports on the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s 1969 UFO symposium in Boston (Smith, 1983). The “grassroots” Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), established in 1969, publishes its own journal, holds symposia and produces proceedings. The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, an association of aerospace professionals, published an appraisal of the UFO “problem” in 1970. In 1976, the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress produced a comprehensive report on the history and status of UFO sightings and studies, updating it in 1983.

Astronomer J. Allen Hynek (who died in 1986) played a role in producing some of the official record on UFOs described above (Smith, 1983). Hynek was one of the first properly credentialed scientists to establish and maintain credibility and authority as a UFO researcher and a legitimate scientist as well. Hynek reportedly began exploring the UFO phenomenon as a skeptic but later came to believe that UFO reports pointed to a mystery that needed to be solved, though he often asserted that he was not a “believer” in UFOs (Smith, 1983). With a Ph.D. in a legitimate science and a professorship at the well known Northwestern University, he served as a consultant to the U.S. Air Force for its UFO studies in the 1960s. Hynek also testified to Congress on the subject. In 1972 Hynek published The UFO Experience: a Scientific Inquiry (Chicago: Henry Regnery), and in 1973 he founded the Center for UFO Studies (CUFOS) at Northwestern. CUFOS established its own journals (which continue to publish today), the Journal of UFO Studies (JUFOS) and the International UFO Reporter.

One of Hynek’s collaborators, Jacques Vallee, also was able to develop credibility and authority both as an UFOlogist and a legitimate scientist. Vallee, who has a Ph.D. in computer science from Northwestern, appears to have constructed separate public identities for himself, as an UFOlogist and a venture capitalist specializing in Silicon Valley business development. A biography posted at his personal Web site10 identifies him as a general partner of SBV Venture Partners, a Silicon Valley investment group, and says about his interest and expertise in UFOlogy only that he “has had a long-term private interest in astronomy, in writing and in the frontiers of research, notably unidentified aerial phenomena [UAP].” His corporate biography11 cites his degrees in mathematics, astrophysics, and computer science and his work with the Shell and RCA corporations, Stanford University and the U.S. government but does not make any reference to his interest in UFOs (or UAP).

One must consult a source other than Vallee’s biographies for a complete list of his publications (I consulted the Library of Congress catalog) — his UFOlogy books include Anatomy of a Phenomenon: Unidentified Objects in Space — A Scientific Appraisal (1965), Challenge to Science: The UFO Enigma (1966), Edge of Reality: A Progress Report on UFOs (1975, with J. Allen Hynek), Confrontations: A Scientist’s Search for Alien Contact (1990), and Forbidden Science: Journals 1957-1969 (1992). His “real science” books include Network Revolution: Confessions of a Computer Scientist (1982) and Heart of the Internet: An Insider’s View of the Origin and Promise of the On-Line Revolution (2003).

One study of the potential scientific value of studying UFOs likely drew media coverage because it was convened by Stanford University physics professor Peter Sturrock — a fully credentialed and legitimate scientist attached to an elite institution, a familiar name in UFOlogy, and a founder of the Society for Scientific Exploration. The Sturrock-led study was financed by philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller (now deceased) and conducted by a panel of authoritatively credentialed “senior physical scientists,” as the authoritative Science magazine described them (Kestenbaum, 1998, p. 21).  The study reportedly concluded that some UFO sightings warrant scientific study.

Panel co-chair Thomas Holzer, a geophysicist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, was quoted in Science, “Anything not explained is something science at some level ought to be interested in” (p. 21). University of Maryland physicist Robert Park, spokesman for the American Institute of Physics, was quoted in Science deeming the study of UFOs “a total waste of time….  Calling in all the people who have seen strange things just gets you a roomful of strange people” (p. 21).  Even The New York Times made note of this group’s report, in its Science Times section (Wade, 1998).

An initiative undertaken by cable television’s Sci Fi Channel (now Sy Fy) is worth considering here because it was framed as an effort to construct scientific authority for UFOlogy but took the form of a media campaign and served the purpose of promoting TV programming. Sci Fi initiated a series of activities that Sci Fi officials said were intended to convince government officials to take UFOs seriously. These activities were also part of a publicity campaign for “Taken,” a Sci Fi mini-series on abduction.Sci Fi described “Taken” as fiction based on true stories. The series was broadcast in December 2002. Sci Fi said it sponsored the various elements of its “Taken” campaign “to shed light on the facts behind the fiction” of the series. They included a series of online “chats” with UFO experts; the commissioning of a Roper public opinion poll on UFOs (results released November 2002); a November 2002 symposium in Washington, D.C., on “interstellar travel and unidentified aerial phenomena”; a November 2002 symposium in New York on “the reality of the abduction phenomenon”; and an October 2002 National Press Club briefing in Washington on the formation of a Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFI). The CFI was a Sci Fi-sponsored project of the Washington public relations and lobbying firm PodestaMattoon, which orchestrated the network’s UFO campaign.John Podesta, a principal in PodestaMattoon, served as White House chief of staff in the Clinton Administration. Along with Sci Fi representatives, Podesta participated in the Press Club announcement of the CFI. One journalist described Sci Fi’s campaign as “seeking the truth through savvy marketing” (David, 2002).

Sci Fi’s Washington symposium took place on the campus of George Washington University. I attended this event to observe the rhetoric of UFOlogy in action, and the following account of it is based on my observations (all quotes are taken from my notes). The university’s vice president for academic affairs said his institution and the Sci Fi Channel had a common interest in promoting interdisciplinary scientific research and “dispassionate discussions” about controversial subjects.A well known journalist with the Public Broadcasting System, Ray Suarez, moderated the event — “to keep things honest,” he told me. The panel of seven experts assembled for this UFOlogy symposium included five Ph.Ds, among them physicists Michio Kaku (a science popularizer as well as a college professor) and Peter Sturrock (of Stanford) and UFOlogist/venture capitalist Jacques Vallee. Given the importance of labeling in constructing authority, I should note that while I am referring to this event as a UFOlogy symposium, the Sci Fi Channel did not use this term in publicizing the event, and speakers at the event avoided use of the term “UFO,” employing the alternative term “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (UAP). Credentials, expertise and authority were emphasized in speaker introductions, biographies and presentations.

Physicist/astrophysicist Bernard Haisch, director of the California Institute for Physics and Astrophysics and keeper of the Web site, said at the symposium that “the field is full of nonsense and hoaxes” but noted that legitimate scientific research “started out this way.” Haisch said research journals and research societies are helping to establish “respectability” for UAP studies (see below regarding one of Haisch’s journal contributions.)  In his remarks at the symposium Jacques Vallee said that, while “this has not been done so far…reports of the phenomenon can be studied objectively with the methods of today’s science without pre-judging their nature. New, radical hypotheses may be needed to account for the phenomenon.” Some panelists recommended that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration or National Science Foundation should devote some funding to the study of UAPs. Speakers discussed at length the need to (and the how-to) persuade the mass media to take their stories seriously. One speaker said the media should “take a leadership role” in telling the story of UAPs.

The Washington Post reported on the event (Gugliotta, 2002), leading with an account of an alleged spaceship crash. If extraterrestrial beings are visiting Earth, the Post observed, “somewhere some sentient beings must have figured out a way to transit interstellar space. Discussions about unidentified flying objects march hand in hand with the feasibility of interstellar space travel,” and “serious people took up these two topics” (p. A12) at the symposium. A report on the symposium posted to a UFOlogy email list (Hall, 2002) claimed “someone fell down on the job” (n.p.) of promoting the event to journalists, as “only a handful of news media showed up (including Channel 4 TV and the Washington Post).”

The Associated Press (Associated Press, 2003) later reported on a Sci Fi Channel-backed lawsuit to make NASA divulge records of  “a UFO that reportedly crash landed and was recovered by government workers” (para. 1) in 1965. “The cable network announced in June,” the story reported, “that it was backing the effort to research the Kecksburg incident in promoting a documentary, ‘Out of the Blue,’ which examined various UFO reports” (para. 11). This story noted, “Sci Fi channel officials said they’re looking for an explanation of what occurred. They’re also looking for viewers. A November 2002 documentary on the suspected 1947 UFO crash in Roswell…was the highest-rated special in the network’s 11-year history…seen by nearly 2.4 million people” (para. 13-14).

Physicist Haisch coauthored a paper published in 2005 in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society (Deardorff, Haisch, Maccabee & Puthoff, 2005) in which the claim was made that advances in scientific knowledge in recent years provide a scientific justification for taking UFO claims seriously. “It has recently been argued,” the authors wrote:

Anthropic reasoning applied to inflation theory reinforces the prediction that we should find ourselves part of a large, galaxy-sized civilization…. Furthermore, superstring and M-brane theory allow for the possibility of parallel universes, some of which in principle could be habitable. In addition, discussion of such exotic transport concepts as ‘traversable wormholes’ now appears in the rigorous physics literature (p. 43).

Consequently, the authors asserted, the proposition that humans may be the only intelligent life in the universe is “inconsistent with new developments in our best current physics and astrophysics theories” (p. 43). Thus scientists should consider seriously investigating UFO reports, they said. (David, 2005) reported that, according to Haisch, many scientists have  “been turned off” by UFO claims that have turned out to be the products of “misinterpretations, delusions, and hoaxes” (para. 16), and consequently they dismiss UFOs as a legitimate subject of study.

A so-called “X-Conference” held in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, in 2004 was, its organizers asserted, designed to attract the attention of journalists and public policy makers to the subject of UFO visitations, “extraterrestrial engagement and societal denial,” according to a press release about the conference.  I attended this conference to observe the rhetoric of UFOlogy in action. Phenomena magazine (Dolan, 2004) judged that the X-Conference failed to meet its aim of generating media coverage and government action — neither the Washington Post nor The New York Times covered the event. While the conference was not covered as national news, it was covered, however, as a local event by a local newspaper.

The Gaithersburg (MD) Gazette (Stanley, 2004) led its story on the conference with the observation, “The certainty of alien life on Earth is usually not at the top of the list of socially acceptable topics of conversation. Yet those wishing to delve into such a realm” were able to do so, the paper said, at the conference. The story reported comments from a number of speakers and attendees. For balance, it cited James Randi (who did not attend the conference), identified in the story as a magician and “investigator of paranormal claims” (para. 40). The story concluded by reporting that, according to Randi, “people who speak at UFO conferences either believe themselves, are trying to scam people…or a bit of both” (para. 48). The Gazette story was framed was a conventional who-what-when-where-why news report. But it prompted one attendee, UFO proponent and would-be journalism critic to complain that “the ‘writer’ has an expansive ignorance, an obvious bias, and a non-constructive attitude” and should “be remembered as a bad example of [her] tortured and ever more discredited craft” (Lehmberg, 2004).”




Associated Press  (2003, December 16). Sci Fi Channel-backed researcher sues NASA over UFO files

[Electronic version]. Associated Press, n.p.


Blake, J. A. (1979, March). UFOlogy: the intellectual development and social context of the study of unidentified flying objects. In R. Wallis (Ed.), On the margins of science: the social construction of rejected knowledge (pp. 315-337). Sociological Review Monograph 27, University of Keele.

Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power (J.B. Thompson, Ed.; G. Raymond and M. Adamson, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Collins, H. M. & Pinch, T. J. (1979, March). The construction of the paranormal: nothing unscientific is happening.  In R. Wallis (Ed.), On the margins of science: the social construction of rejected knowledge (pp. 237-270). Sociological Review Monograph 27, University of Keele.

Collins, H. M. & Pinch, T. J. (1982). Frames of meaning: the social construction of extraordinary science. London, Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

David, L. (2002, October 25). UFOs: seeking the truth through savvy marketing., n.p.

Deardorff, J., Haisch, B., Maccabee, B. & Puthoff, H. (2005, Jan.-Feb.). Inflation-theory implications for extraterrestrial visitation. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, 58, 43-50.

Dolan, R. (2004, April 27). The X-Conference: not lights in the sky, but lies on the ground. Phenomena Magazine, n.p.

Gugliotta, G. (2002, November 18). A trip as far away as space-time will allow: scientists contemplate ideas, impossibilities of interstellar transit. Washington Post, p. A12.

Kestenbaum, D. (1998). Panel says some UFO reports worthy of study. Science, 281, 21.

Lehmberg, A. (2004). Re: X-Conference draws hundreds to Gaithersburg (message posted to the mailing list UFO UpDates).

Rosen, M. (1999, July 19). New book debunks abduction evidence., n.p.

Smith. M. S. (1983). The UFO enigma (Revised and updated by G. D. Havas.) Report No. 83-205 SPR.Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service.

Stanley, B. W. (2004, April 21). X-Conference draws hundreds of believers to Gaithersburg [Electronic version]. Gaithersburg (MD) Gazette.

Wade, N. (1998, June 30). Science watch: recognizing what is real. The New York Times, p. F4.




Enter the Way-Back Machine: Space Day 1977


Once upon a time, writer-activist Stewart Brand, a long-time space exploration fan, sent the comic-book artist and well known curmudgeon R. Crumb to a “Space Day” symposium in southern California.

At that time – 1977 – Brand* was editor of CoEvolution Quarterly, a future-looking magazine he’d founded in 1974.** He assigned Crumb to cover the symposium for the magazine. Crumb, of course, reported on it in a comic strip, “R. Crumb on assignment for the CoEvolution Quarterly goes to the…Space Day Symposium (or whatever the hell it was called…).”

You can read the whole thing here (pp. 48-51) thanks to the Whole Earth Catalog folks, dedicated, as always, to providing “access to tools and ideas.” (Stay tuned for my next post if you want to know more about Whole Earth and CoEv…. Full disclosure: I am a big R. Crumb fan.)

In his Space Day report, Crumb offered “before,” during,” and “after” takes on the event.

Crumb before going: “Hey, sounds like fun, Stewart, I’d love to go!”

Crumb at the event: listening to a talk about how “exploring this limitless frontier means benefits for people in many ways, including the creation of employment opportunities, establishment of new businesses, benefits from applications of space technology, and visions of planetary realism etc. etc.,” Crumb thinks, “Ho hum, man, what a bore!!”

Crumb after the event: “what a smug bunch of hypocrites!! Now when I think about it, I just get mad!”

The symposium, a public event, took place August 11, 1977, at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles – now called the California Science Center and home to the retired NASA space shuttle orbiter Endeavour. We can read between the lines that this symposium was what the late historian Daniel Boorstin called a pseudoevent, a carefully planned and tightly orchestrated media opportunity.*** Crumb reported, “Films were shown, speeches were made and lectures given by politicians” (including Governor Jerry Brown), “scientists” (including Carl Sagan), “astronauts” (including Rusty Schweickart, now on the board of the B612 Foundation – see my recent posts on “asteroid dreams”), and “promoters and big shots from the aerospace industry.”

The “climax” of the symposium took place August 12 in the Mohave Desert, Crumb reported, “where the new ‘space shuttle’ made its first free flight landing.”

Before the Space Day symposium, Crumb explored the museum and noticed that the place was “a showroom for aerospace corporations, each with its own elaborate displays and sales pitch.” During the symposium, he heard one aerospace corporate executive assert, “…The dangers of the misuse of rockets and satellites is the responsibility of the government, not the aerospace industry…our job is to deliver the goods for whoever buys our products…our responsibility is to our stockholders….”

After the event, Crumb wondered, “What was the purpose of all this talk about our destiny…the thrust into space?…. To drum up business for the aerospace corporations, obviously!!”

“But what’s wrong with space exploration, you may ask? Isn’t it true,” Crumb wrote, “that it’s an exciting new frontier and that it will raise the consciousness of humanity?”  He concluded, “Don’t be duped by foolish Buck Rogers dreams of glorious adventures among the planets! Let’s wait until we’ve learned to get along with each other before we go barging into the cosmos! Whataya say??”

I say, “Yer right, Crumb.” Whatta you say?

* If you’ve read my recent posts about asteroid plans, you may be interested to know that Stewart Brand is now a “strategic advisor” to the B612 Foundation.

** Brand was also founder and editor of the Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and cofounder of the early online community The WELL (1985) (“Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”).

*** In his book The Image: A Guide to Pseudoevents in America (1961), Boorstin described a pseudoevent:  “The celebration is held, photographs are taken, the occasion is widely reported.”

(Thanks to Beej Weir’s Tumbler for the image of R. “Buck Rogers” Crumb!)

Asteroid dreams, part 3: origins…


Where did the idea for an asteroid retrieval mission come from, who sold it to the Obama administration, and why did the administration buy it?

I’ve asked many of my colleagues these questions, gathering quite a bit of second-or third-hand information and speculation. I’ll focus on examining primary information: the April 2, 2012, Keck Institute for Space Studies (KISS) asteroid return mission study report.

The study was sponsored by KISS, which describes itself as “a think and do tank… “established at Caltech in January 2008 with a $24 million grant over 8 years from the W. M. Keck Foundation…whose primary purpose is to bring together a broad spectrum of scientists and engineers for sustained technical interaction aimed at developing new space mission concepts and technology.” According to KISS, the study “was carried out in part at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.”

KISS also lists as one of its projects the 2011 “CalTech Space Challenge,” a student competition to design a humans-to-an-asteroid mission: “If you’re a student who’s ever wanted to plan a manned space mission—or channel your inner Bruce Willis from the movie Armageddon—now’s your chance. This September, Caltech will a host a workshop inviting about 20 graduate and undergraduate students from around the world to design a mission to an asteroid or comet in Earth’s neighborhood—a so-called Near-Earth Object (NEO)—that would return a sample of rock or ice. The Caltech Space Challenge, sponsored by the Keck Institute for Space Studies, will pit two groups against each other to plan the best mission. ‘Designing a human-exploration mission to a near-Earth asteroid is both timely and exciting,’ says Donald Yeomans, who manages NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at JPL and is one of the faculty mentors for the workshop. ‘The most spacecraft-accessible asteroids in Earth’s neighborhood are also the most dangerous in terms of their ability to collide with Earth’.”

The “adult” study group included experts from JPL and CalTech; Lou Friedman, former executive director of The Planetary Society; former NASA astronaut and current “strategic advisor” to the B612 Foundation Tom Jones; former NASA astronaut and current member of the board of the B612 Foundation Rusty Schweickart; and Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of Planetary Resources;.

This study articulated the rationale and benefits of an asteroid return mission as follows: “synergy with near-term human exploration, expansion of international cooperation in space, synergy with planetary defense, exploitation of asteroid resources, [and] public engagement.”

A now-standard element of the pitch for an asteroid retrieval mission is that the idea of mining asteroids is very old. According to the KISS study, “The idea of exploiting the natural resources of asteroids dates back over a hundred years, but only now has the technology become available to make this idea a reality.” Just because an idea is old doesn’t mean that it is very good. Just because technology may be available (a point on which I would beg to differ – at least it’s not available at anything near a manageable cost) doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to use it. And how about the legality of corporate mining of space resources? According to international law – that is, the  the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty –  “the exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind. Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.”

According to the KISS study, NASA Glenn Research Center’s Collaborative Modeling for Parametric Assessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) lab “estimated the full life-cycle cost of an asteroid capture and return mission at ~$2.6B.” According to NASA Glenn’s Space Flight Systems Directorate web site, “Glenn also supports the Collaborative Modeling for Parametric Assessment of Space Systems (COMPASS) team, which consists of technical experts at NASA. They use the systems analysis tools to conduct trade studies on space exploration vehicles. The resulting data must be kept up-to-date and available to other NASA centers for further analysis.” I have not yet been able to find any further details about the COMPASS lab and its analysis (my web browser tells me that access to the COMPASS lab web site is “forbidden”). I do note that GRC’s Space Technology Office includes divisions for solar electric propulsion, in-space propulsion, space power systems, manufacturing innovation, and in-situ resource utilization.

The KISS study also claims, “The excitement of changing the orbit and harnessing the resources of a celestial object for space exploration is obvious.”

At the risk of appearing to be more thick-headed than I am, it is not obvious to me. And while I may have missed it, I am not aware of an upwelling of public interest in this idea (beyond space geekdom, that is…).

Asteroid dreams, Part 2: embrace the ARM!


On May 31 the White House hosted a “We the Geeks” Google+ hangout on asteroids that featured a line-up of like-minded advocates for finding, exploring, and exploiting NEOs: Lori Garver, Deputy Administrator of NASA; Bill Nye, Executive Director of the Planetary Society; Ed Lu, CEO of the B612 Foundation; Peter Diamandis, cofounder and cochairman of Planetary Resources; and Jose Luis Galache, astronomer with the Minor Planets Center.  Moderating this discussion was the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s assistant director for grand challenges, Cristin Dorgelo, who from 2006-2012 was vice president for prize operations for the X Prize Foundation, whose chairman and chief executive officer was and is Peter Diamandis.

I found the Google Hangout to be a cheerleading session for the administration’s ARM proposal, B612, and Planetary Resources. You can watch it and judge for yourself.

Bill Nye pitched the idea of using “laser bees” to nudge hazardous asteroids off orbital paths that could intersect with Earth. “Awesome,” Dorgelo responded.

Ed Lu said B612 is “building the world’s most advanced detection telescope [to] launch in 2018.” “Awesome, very cool,” said Dorgelo. If we’re going to explore space, said Peter Diamandis, “we need to be dependent on resources in space.” The asteroid 1998 QE2 – which made a close approach to Earth at a distance of 3.5 million million miles on May 31 – “has a trillion liters of water on it…we’re talking about a multi-trillion-dollar object of value.” (I have not attempted to verify these claims.) “The only thing that’s drawn humanity to explore the world is the search for resources,” he noted.

“We need to recognize the incredible role that space plays in unifying the world,” said Lori Garver. “It has literally, Bill, say it with me, changed the world.” Lu added, “I can’t think of anything more beautiful than to find an asteroid that’s going to hit us, and do something about it…. That will be a unifying moment, a turning point, in history.” Planetary Resources and B612 “will help humanity explore, exploit, and protect,” said Diamandis.

“We need to get the public involved,” Diamandis continued. (See my previous post for information on Planetary Resources’ current crowd-funding campaign.)  How should the public participate? Asked Dorgelo. By joining all the space advocacy groups* and contributing to all the crowd-funding campaigns to finance space projects, Garver responded.

Call me dense, but I just didn’t “get” this event. I know the federal government traditionally has played a role in promoting new business development, I know the times they are a-changin’, and I know that geekdom is an important constituency for this administration (and certainly for the space program)… Nonetheless, it just doesn’t add up right to me. Maybe I’m just too darned old.

Asteroid dreams, Part 1: detect, deflect…exploit?


Recent news and events have had me thinking a lot lately about near-Earth objects (NEOS). (Disclosure: I do communication research for NASA’s NEO Program. I have to pay attention.) This post is Part 1 of a three-part post on my thinking.

Last year, the Obama administration proposed to send humans to an asteroid. Hard-core human spaceflight advocates are wildly enthusiastic about this idea. Others, not so much (see below). Meanwhile, one group at NASA claims to have identified a number of “human-accessible” asteroids, while others say, well, not quite yet…. This year, the administration has proposed an asteroid retrieval mission (ARM) as part of a three-part strategy to “identify” more NEOs (by expanding NASA’s NEO observation program), “redirect” by developing options for deflecting NEOs on a collision course with Earth, and “explore” by initiating a mission to capture an asteroid and drag it back to the vicinity of the Moon for human exploration. (For a description of this strategy, see this NASA presentation.)

Last summer, the B612 Foundation proposed to save the world from asteroid impacts by raising private funding to build a space-based NEO detection and tracking telescope. No word yet from B612 on exactly how much it will cost to build, launch, and operate Sentinel and, perhaps more importantly, how much funding it has amassed thus far.

Also last summer, the start-up company Planetary Resources announced its plans for corporate mining of asteroids “for the benefit of humanity.”  I must note that, no matter what they say their “missions” are, corporations exist to make money. Period. Any benefits to humanity from mining operations are to the select few who profit from them. Last week Planetary Resources initiated a crowd-funding campaign to raise $1 million to build a small-scale space telescope “for the people.” As of today, the company says it’s raised $750,000. (Last summer, by the way, another outfit announced that it had initiated a “Crowdfund NASA” project.)

Media coverage of these various and sundry proposals has been breathless and extensive, as I’ve noted before. I’ve seen little critical analysis, though not everybody buys the claims without raising an eyebrow (or two). See, for instance, long-time Time magazine reporter Jeff Kluger’s take on asteroid mining. I myself don’t expect much to come of these proposals – except for maybe “The People’s Telescope,” as its size and scope are very small – though even $1 million will likely not cover the cost of building, launching, and operating it.

Meanwhile, on May 31 the White House hosted a “We the Geeks” Google+ hangout on asteroids that featured a line-up of like-minded advocates for exploring and exploiting NEOs. See my next blog post for more information on that event….