Mansplaining: (please) quit it!



Recently, while chatting with three scientist-friends (one male, two female), I learned a new word: “mansplain.” Now I have a word in my vocabulary that describes a phenomenon I’ve been observing for years.

I looked up “mansplaining” in the Urban Dictionary. On the Urban Dictionary Web site, users can give a “thumbs up” or a “thumbs down” to any definition in it.  Here are some of the several definitions offered, along with their “ratings” (you can check the site to read other definitions, and “vote” on them if you like):

“The tendency of some men to mistakenly believe that they automatically know more about any given topic than does a woman and who, consequently, proceed to explain to her – correctly or not – things that she already knows.” (1,201 thumbs ups, 507 thumbs downs). [Doctor Linda’s note: This definition describes the phenomenon I’ve been observing.]

“A word used by pseudo-intellectual feminist (e.g. ugly chicks, over 30 single moms with no chance in hell of getting a man their own age, and insecure fat chicks or combo of all three) on the internet to justify their loosing argument and/or anti-male rhetoric.” (110 thumbs ups, 315 thumbs downs)

“A term created by radical feminists to automatically discredit the opinion of a man because he’s, well, a man.” (209 thumbs ups, 771 thumbs downs)


In “Mansplaining 101: How to Discuss Politics and Feminism Without Acting Like a Jackass,”, writer Amy McCarthy offers this advice to men: “Feminists are not always right, but neither are you. Mansplaining is a scourge in academia, online activism, and the blogosphere that discourages women from participating in the dialogue. If you consider yourself a true feminist ally, stop doing it. Most importantly, back up women when they call it out.”

Thanks, Amy!


PS – I found so many “mansplaining” images that made me laugh that I thought I’d share some of them here….






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This week’s space news: billions and billions


In this week’s aerospace news we find industry profits up and dreams of space tourism alive and well.

The Los Angeles Times reported July 24, “ Boeing profit jumps 13% in second quarter, beating estimates. Boeing posts net income of $1.09 billion as sales rise 9% to $21.8 billion in the second quarter.”

The Associated Press reported July 24, “Northrop Grumman 2Q net income rises 2 pct. Northrop Grumman 2nd-qtr net income beats Wall Street estimates, 2013 outlook boosted.”

And so on.

Meanwhile, “Boeing Unveils Stylish New Space Capsule,” as Wired News reported July 24. “The new capsule is one of three designs competing for NASA contracts to fly astronauts to low earth orbit.”

And in Popular Science, we learned about something “New For Space Tourists: A Light, Comfy Space Suit.” At a “NASA Tech Day on the Hill,” held in a congressional office building in Washington, D.C., “private space company Final Frontier Design show[ed] off the latest orbital fashion…. The space suit is safe for both suborbital and orbital commercial space travel…. The company premiered the suit as part of NASA’s “Tech Day on the Hill.” According to Pop Sci, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and 16 members of Congress attended the event, “along with over 500 staff and guests.”

Also on July 24, Haute Living reported, “Fasten your seat belt for the ride of a lifetime! Space travel is no longer a fantasy in George Lucas movies—it is now an attainable reality for adventurous folks who can spare $250,000 on Virgin Galactic or book a flight with Space Expedition Corporation at $95,000 that seems to be a bargain (round trip!).”

Haute Living describes itself as “a leading network of luxury lifestyle publications, with bimonthly regional editions in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco…. Haute Living Magazine’s goal is to provide editorial content that is as sophisticated as our readers. With a strong editorial focus on inspiring power players and unstoppable business moguls alongside intriguing editorial on “toys for boys” (private jets, megayachts, supercars, timepieces, and more), Haute Living is targeted towards those who desire and have the means to experience the finest things in life.”

“Toys for boys.” Not my words….

A Haute Living writer reports, “Recently I attended the closing session of the Aspen Institute Idea Festival, which featured Sir Richard Branson who presented his new concept, Virgin Galactic space travel where he revealed Tom and Margo Pritzker of Hyatt Hotels family and Richard Blum, Senator Diane Feinstein’s financier husband signed up for the trip, among other notable supporters.”

According to Forbes, Thomas Pritzer has a net worth of $2.3 billion. Yup. Billion. He’s a cousin of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker (net worth: $1.8 billion).

Our Haute Living “ambassador” continues, “Earlier this year, I attended the Space Expedition Corporation’s Silicon Valley presentation at the Woodside residence of Honorary Consul General of The Czech Republic Richard Pivnicka and Barbara Pivnicka, Honorary Consul Of The Slovak Republic. Space Expedition has partnered with Vikram Veerapaneni, Founder and President of SaaVee, Inc.—a cloud-computing expert and Silicon Valley supporter of Space Expedition Corp. This event was studded with local investors and engineers from Google and other Silicon Valley firms and space enthusiasts.”

It’s all so depressing….

Another bit of yesterday’s news, on the brighter side, was President Obama’s invigorating “better bargain for the middle class” speech. I agree with him: we need more new good jobs (not more part-time slots at fast-food joints); better education, and more affordable higher education; affordable housing (not more McMansions and gated communities); affordable and accessible health care; retirement security; and “ladders of opportunity” to socioeconomic security.

I like this agenda.

The frontier metaphor: still worrisome


In this post I’m responding to comments on my blog post of July 22, “Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor.”

In that post I provided a reference to my most detailed analysis of the idea of the space frontier, published in 2007 by the NASA History Office. This peer-reviewed paper, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” is available free online. I’d recommend it.

I see no need to respond to specific criticisms, as my readers speak for themselves. However, I can offer some personal history to explain how I see the world and why I see the world the way I do, as a public scholar and a public citizen. To start, building on a description of my analytic perspective that I provided in my doctoral dissertation (published 2005), I’ve written a white paper of sorts to identify the values, beliefs, and other personal factors I’m aware of bringing to my research and analysis as they may influence my process and outcomes. I’ve posted this paper here.

As a social scientist, one of my primary research interests has been the study of space exploration in culture. My working definition of “culture” comes from the late cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who described it as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embedded in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life.” My perspective on the topics I choose to study is unique. I have acquired my experience, knowledge, and worldview in the context of Western, American culture where I’ve lived, and at the same time my experience, knowledge, and worldview are, like those of anyone else, personal and subjective.

My thinking about the U.S. space program and the enterprise of space exploration has evolved continually since I entered the aerospace community in 1983, when I became editor of Space Business News. Starting out, I had no opinions about the space program or commercial space development, as I knew very little about them. In addition, I’d been working as a journalist in Washington for several years already, and I’d learned to keep my opinions out of my copy. On the space commercialization beat, I quickly learned that to get a decent idea of the viability of a commercial-space business proposal, I’d learn more from the investment bankers than I’d learn from the proposal developers. I also started to see how the Reagan administration’s promotion of commercial space development was part of a broader ideological move to “let the private sector do it” and keep the government out of its way.

From 1985-1986, I worked on the staff of the National Commission on Space, a “blue-ribbon panel” appointed by President Reagan to map out a long-term plan for human and robotic space exploration. During my term with the commission I listened to experts and citizens across the country lay out their hopes and dreams for space exploration. They are represented in the commission’s final report, Pioneering the Space Frontier (1986). I learned that while most people we heard from favored space exploration, they were not all enamored of the idea of colonizing outer space. I started to learn more about the history of the idea of space colonization, especially since Gerard K. O’Neill was on the commission.

From 1986 to 1988, I served as the senior editor for space at Air & Space/Smithsonian magazine, which covers aviation, human space flight, and scientific space exploration. I recall, for example, serving as editor for a freelance piece about customers who’d made down payments on commercial space flights with an outfit called Society Expeditions. (That outfit’s commercial space flight plans fell by the wayside.)

From 1988 through 1996, I worked as a consultant/contractor to a variety of NASA programs, including the agency’s space station utilization office and its space life sciences program, supporting their communication, education, and public outreach efforts. From 1992 to 1993, I worked on a series of town meetings convened by NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, bringing together space experts and citizens around the country to talk about what they wanted their national space program to be and do. The views aired at those meetings are summarized in a final report published in 1993. Again, what I heard from citizens around the country is that they wanted their country to continue exploring space, for discovery and understanding. You can read our report on the meetings here.

From 1992 to 1995, I also worked on earning my master’s degree in international transactions, at George Mason University, where I studied, among other things, theories of political economy, the global banking system, trade policy, multinational institutions, and international law.

From 1993 to 1994, I worked on organizing a symposium for NASA’s “Mission from Planet Earth Study Office.” The event – “What Is the Value of Space Exploration?” – took place in July 1994 in Washington, D.C. I developed a rationale for the event, identified speakers and invited them to participate, explained the purpose of the meeting, and wrote a summary of the proceedings that you can read here.

From 1996 to 1999, I took a break from my work in the space community to earn my Ph.D. in mass communication from Indiana University. There I studied communication theory, social theory, the history and sociology of journalism, international communication, the history and philosophy of science, and rhetorical criticism.

From 1999 to 2002, I served as director of communications for SPACEHAB, a commercial provider of space habitats, payload processing, and other space services. (The company is now defunct.)

From 2002 to the present, I have worked under grants and contracts with NASA science programs, doing communication research for them. I currently do research for NASA’s astrobiology and near-Earth object programs.

My experience in the human space flight community in the late 1980s and the early 1990s led me to conclude that the business of human space flight was, essentially, broken. It still is. For 30 years I have been listening to leaders in this community talk about the need to reduce space launch costs by an order of magnitude. It hasn’t happened. (I know that some so-called commercial launch providers promise a drastic reduction in cost. We’ll see.) For 30 years I’ve kept hoping that this community might offer up a rationale for continued human exploration that might be broadly meaningful to people outside the space community. It hasn’t happened yet. For 30 years I’ve watched aerospace corporations – ably represented by their own considerable lobbying forces, with help from the industry-funded Aerospace Industries Association, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Space Foundation, and National Defense Industrial Association, among others – dominate the process of developing our national agenda in space.

Sidebar: While companies have laid off tens of thousands of workers, the aerospace industry is strong. Today’s Washington Post reports on page 1 today that major players in the aerospace and defense industry – among them Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics – are “faring well despite [federal] budget cuts” and sequestration. Lockheed Martin reported yesterday that its profit had risen 10 percent during the second quarter of its current fiscal year, to $859 million.

I’ve had many opportunities to speak or write about my concerns in recent years. Whenever I speak about my unease with the space frontier metaphor, I get positive feedback, mostly (though not exclusively) from women and non-U.S. citizens. I’ve learned that even Western Europeans, who we might assume share the same “Western” cultural values embedded in our national narrative, do not necessarily find the American-style ideology of pioneering and settling the space frontier particularly palatable.

In a paper I published in the journal Space Policy in 2006, I wrote: “The US civilian space program is focused on planning for a new round of human missions beyond Earth orbit, to realize a ‘vision’ for exploration articulated by President George W. Bush. It is important to examine this ‘vision’ in the broader context of the global enterprise of 21st century space exploration. How will extending human presence into the Solar System affect terrestrial society and culture? What legal, ethical and other value systems should govern human activities in space?”

In that 2006 article, I quoted from a paper published in the first volume of Space Policy, in 1985 (Hempenius SA, Voute C., Human development and the conquest of Space, Space Policy 1985, 1:179–86). The authors of that paper asserted that space exploration carries with it “the danger of domination by extrovert cultures. Proper development of space technology requires international cooperation, scientific creativity and technological innovation combined with sociopolitical, economic and cultural aims and objectives and ethical values. Norms and objectives have to take into account religious concepts, humanistic viewpoints and sociocultural criteria. The ethics of the conquest of space have to consider the benefit of all mankind and that of each single individual, group and society as complementary and of equal importance.”

I’ll say again today that space policy makers would still do well to consider these concerns in their deliberations on the ethics of space exploration and development.

Asteroid Dreams, Pt. 9: ARM/MSL – beyond compare?


In my last blog post I reported ex-NASA astronaut Tom Jones’s assertion Jones also asserted that the Obama administration’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is a “practical” mission that will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission. Jones also said the ARM will be a “meaningful” mission.

I disagree.

Last thing first: what’s “meaningful” is subjective. What’s meaningful to Jones is not necessarily meaningful to me. “Meaningful” is a loaded word – laden with ambiguity and uncertainty.

Next: is ARM a “practical” mission? If one assumes that human settlement of the solar system and commercial exploitation of its resources are “practical,” then, yes. If one does not accept these assumptions, then maybe the answer is no.

Now let’s discuss Jones’s claim that the ARM will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. First, let me say that it’s rather early on to be making such a comparison. The ARM is a concept at this point, and not very well fleshed out (see previous posts). MSL is an operating mission.

As to “challenging,” consider that NASA had built, landed, and operated a few rovers on Mars before it developed the MSL mission. MSL’s Curiosity rover had ancestors including the two Mars Exploration Rovers (Spirit and Opportunity, both of which continued well past their planned mission lifetimes) and Mars Pathfinder. In addition, NASA had landed and operated other (non-roving) spacecraft on Mars, including the Phoenix polar lander and the twin Viking landers of the 1970s. And NASA has used a small fleet of Mars orbiters to collect data on Mars in support of these missions (planning and operations). Yes, MSL’s entry, descent, and landing system was new and complex. Other technical challenges for MSL included the size and mass of the rover, the number and complexity of its science investigations, and its new radioisotope thermoelectric generator.

While NASA and others have flown robotic missions to asteroids and comets, no one has tried to grab and move one. And NEO experts have learned in recent years that NEOs are far from uniform objects. Mars is Mars. Every possible NEO capture target is different from the next one, and none are fully characterized as yet.

As to mission costs, a 2011 report from NASA’s Inspector General, “NASA’s Management of the Mars Science Laboratory Project,” provides some history of MSL’s costs. At launch time in 2011, NASA’s stated life-cycle cost for MSL was $2.5 billion. MSL originally was scheduled to launch in 2009, but technical problems dictated postponing the launch.

According to the IG’s report, “The delay and the additional resources required to resolve the underlying technical issues increased the Project’s development costs by 86 percent, from $969 million to the current [2011] $1.8 billion, and its life-cycle costs by 56 percent, from $1.6 billion [in August 2006] to the current $2.5 billion.” If the launch had been delayed to 2013, mission costs would have increased further, “at least by the $570 million that would be required to redesign the mission to account for differences in planetary alignment and the Martian dust storm season.”

A few more details about MSL’s history: formulation and design of the mission stretched from September 2003 to September 2006, at which time NASA produced a life-cycle cost estimate of $1.6 billion; final design, fabrication, integration and testing proceeded from September 2006 to launch in 2011; NASA increased its life-cycle cost estimate to $2.3 billion in June 2009, $2.4 billion in January 2010, and $2.5 billion in November 2010.

The IG’s report noted that the MSL team’s 2010 cost estimate might have been “insufficient to ensure timely completion of the Project in light of the historical pattern of cost increases and the amount of work that remains to be completed before launch. For example, when NASA rescheduled the launch to 2011, Project managers estimated the cost to complete development at $400 million and maintained $95 million of unallocated reserve at the Program level. However, this level of reserve turned out to be insufficient, and the estimated cost to complete development was increased by $137 million, from $400 million to $537 million, in December 2010. Our analysis of the Project’s current estimate to complete development indicates that even the $537 million figure may be too low. Our analysis is based on the earned value management system budget data and estimates of the additional work that will be needed to address unknowns. We estimate that $581 million may be required – $44 million more than management’s latest estimate.”

I don’t know whether NASA has updated its MSL life-cycle cost since the mission’s 2011 launch and 2012 landing.

My five cents worth on comparing MSL and ARM: they are not simply apples and oranges, they are a fish and a bicycle.

I would note one observation in the IG’s report on MSL that is pertinent to the ARM: “Historically, NASA has found the probability that schedule-impacting problems will arise is commensurate with the complexity of the project.”

Meetings of NEO experts earlier this month (see previous posts) featured discussions about the cost of the ARM. An estimate of $1 billion (NASA’s “floor” for a flagship-scale mission) is floating around. Most experts at those meetings agreed that this number is way too low. No one at these meetings described the ARM as a simple mission.

The April 2012 Keck Institute for Space Studies “Asteroid Retrieval Feasibility Study”—from whence the ARM concept apparently sprang – estimates that “the first ACR [asteroid capture and retrieval] mission including DDT&E [design, development, testing, and evaluation] plus the first unit, launch services, mission operations, government insight/oversight, and reserves is estimated at $2.6 billion” (pp. 12-13). “The first ACR mission would deliver asteroid material to high lunar orbit at a cost in $/kg that would roughly be a factor of 8 cheaper than costs for launching that mass from the ground. The recurring cost for subsequent missions is estimated at approximately $1 [billion]” (p. 13).

According to the KISS study, NASA estimates that launching mass from Earth to high lunar orbit costs about $100,000 per kilogram. Launching 500 tons of mass from Earth to high lunar orbit thus would cost $20 billion. Capturing a 500-ton asteroid and returning it to high lunar orbit for resource exploitation would, theoretically, cost less.

What’s not clear to me is what demand exists for extraterrestrial resources. The feasibility and cost of mining extraterrestrial resources, processing them into useful products, and storing them in space is also not clear. For practical purposes, such as lining up project financing, it may be unknown.

Though there is some discussion of these matters on page 39 of the KISS study, it notes, “Further development of equipment for effecting mineral separation on asteroids…could await both experience with the first retrieved asteroid and laboratory investigations on meteorite samples.”

It appears that the KISS study team simply assumed future demand and considered the costs of resource extraction, processing, and storage beyond the scope of its study. (KISS team, please correct me if I’m wrong.)

Asteroid People, you have a lot of work to do!

Asteroid Dreams, Part 8: Target NEO 2, Pt. 2


Yesterday I reported on some of the proceedings of the July 9 “Target NEO 2″ Workshop in Washington, D.C., where NASA, industry, and academic experts aired their plans, assumptions, questions, and concerns about the Obama administration’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Today I’m reporting on the rest of the workshop proceedings.

“Uncertainty drives the ARM proximity operations concept.” This was the word from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Steve Broschart. The current ARM plan calls for building the asteroid retrieval/redirect spacecraft before identifying its target object. “The broad range of primitive-body mission parameters” – mass, orbit, and so on – “and the diversity of mission requirements allow for many different mission-specific approaches to proximity operations,” he said.

NASA Langley Research Center’s Carlos Roithmayer went over asteroid docking, grappling, and capture control options for the ARM, including an “axisymmetric bag,” a robotic system of 3-4 manipulator arms with or without a capture bag, and a mechanism modeled after a Hoberman sphere (something like a collapsible geodesic dome…). (I got lost in Roithmayer’s presentation, which was riddled with references to such obscure things as eigenstructure, eigenvalues, Poincare maps, and nonlinear reality.)

Applied Physics Laboratory NEO expert Cheryl Reed asked whether anyone has conducted an analysis of whether a NEO capture operation such as the one proposed for the ARM concept could break up the asteroid or otherwise render it useless to the mission.

No one at the workshop was aware of such a study.

Another participant asked how precisely the mass of a small asteroid can be estimated. JPL’s Broschart said he wasn’t sure “we care too much” for the purposes of the ARM. The Planetary Science Institute’s Mark Sykes asked how an asteroid-capture spacecraft can be engineered with little certainty about the mass of the object to be captured. Experts on hand agreed that given this uncertainty, it’s likely that the spacecraft will be over-engineered to meet a variety of contingencies. “You need a Plan B,” Another participant observed.

NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s Dave Folta described the asteroid-capture mission as “an exploration-class demonstrator.” Others asked how a flagship-class (billion-dollar-plus) mission could be called a technology demonstration. They also asked whether this mission would be exempt from NASA’s standard review process, given the tight schedule proposed for it. No clear answer emerged.

One thing that did emerge over the course of this workshop was a consensus that the ARM cannot be completed on time and within budget given the schedule and requirements proposed. Participants discussed what a reasonable cost cap for the ARM might be. Some said it depends on where the money comes from. Some consensus emerged that NASA’s human exploration directorate should pay…. NASA’s Greg Williams, speaking for that directorate, said “I don’t know” where the money will come from or what the cost cap for the mission will be. It’s a fiscal year 2015 budget decision, and the White House is depending on NASA for guidance, he said.

A number of participants talked throughout the day about how to “sell” the ARM to Congress and “the public.” Ex-NASA astronaut Tom Jones commented that the ARM proposal is the only thing NASA can reasonably offer right now to further its long-term human exploration goals. The return on investment in the ARM will be a “new, unique, meaningful destination for human explorers in the next decade.” The long-term payoff from the ARM will be NEO resource use and the commercialization of space-based rocket propellant production.

I was not the only person at this workshop who would question whether the ARM is “reasonable” and whether a human mission to an asteroid is “meaningful.” Claims of a need for exploiting extraterrestrial resources and producing spacecraft propellant in space rest on the questionable assumption that the human settlement and exploitation of space is ethical and necessary.

Jones also asserted that the ARM is a “practical” mission that will be “less challenging and costly” than NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission.

I disagree, and I’ll explain why in a future post.

To wrap up, here’s what I took away from the Target NEO 2 Workshop. Human exploration advocates are behind the ARM. The planetary science community is skeptical. The message from the science community to NASA is: slow down, get real. Even advocates for the mission acknowledged that the mission lacks definition thus far, the proposed schedule for the mission is too aggressive, and mission cost and funding are uncertain.

In a future post, I’ll report on discussions at a July 10-11 meeting of NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, where the ARM proposal was prominent on the agenda.

Dangerous: the space frontier metaphor


(Illustration: Across the Space Frontier, published in 1952.)


The Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) is holding its annual conference later this week in California.

The event has a tagline: “Space settlement is no longer a dream, it is an industry.”


As far as I can tell, “space settlement” is only an industry in this sense: advocating for colonizing and exploiting outer space is a vocation for a small group of people, most of whom appear to know each other. Some of these people have been making a living at advocating for this idea – or “dream,” as they tend to call it – for decades. They share the same belief system – that “we” (humans) have a right to go where we want, live where we want, do what we want, and take what we want.

One of them is Rick Tumlinson, SFF co-founder and lead ideologue. I’ve written about the frontier-conquest rhetoric of Tumlinson and his ilk before*:

“Examining the history of space flight advocacy reveals an ideology of space flight that draws deeply on a durable American cultural narrative – a national mythology – of frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits. This ideology rests on a number of assumptions, or beliefs, about the role of the United States in the global community, American national character, and the ‘right’ form of political economy. According to this ideology, the United States is and must remain ‘Number One’ in the world community, playing the role of political, economic, scientific, technological, and moral leader. That is, the U.S. is and must be exceptional. This ideology constructs Americans as independent, pioneering, resourceful, inventive – and exceptional. And it establishes that liberal democracy and free-market capitalism (or capitalist democracy) constitute the only viable form of political economy. The rhetoric of space advocacy exalts those enduring American values of pioneering, progress, enterprise, freedom, and rugged individualism, and it advances the cause of capitalist democracy….

…The SFF espouses a conflicting set of goals, including ‘protecting the Earth’s fragile biosphere and creating a freer and more prosperous life for each generation by using the unlimited energy and material resources of space.’ Its stated strategy for achieving these goals is ‘to wage a war of ideas in the popular culture’ and transform U.S. space flight ‘from a government program for the few to an open frontier for everyone.’

In a series of essays called ‘the Frontier Files’…Tumlinson offers his version of the space frontier narrative: ‘We…see our civilization at a crossroads…. Down one path is a future of limits to growth, environmental degradation and ultimately extinction. Down the other path lie limitless growth, an environmentally pristine Earth and an open and free frontier in space.

Regarding the purpose of space flight, he asserts: ‘The one necessary and sufficient reason we are called to the Space Frontier is buried deep within us. It is a feeling…. A calling to go, to see, to do, to be ‘there.” We believe Homo Sapiens is a frontier creature. It is what we do, it defines what we are’.”

Back to the agenda for the SFF’s 2013 conference: NASA officials scheduled to appear there include deputy administrator Lori Garver and associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmeier. From Congress will be Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a pea in the same ideological pod as Tumlinson (I’d like to note that their ideology has an uncomfortably macho streak running through it). Also on the agenda are a bunch of the space-exploitation regulars I’ve been watching for decades. (Some of them are my friends – we’ve always agreed to disagree.)

Also speaking, about “growing the microgravity research market,” is successful venture capitalist and well known UFOlogist Jacques Vallee. Among his many books are 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).

The agenda also features Richard Pournelle of NanoRacks. He’s the son of science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, one of the better known names in the southern California libertarian space advocacy community. According to Wikipedia, “In 1994, Pournelle’s friendly relationship with Newt Gingrich led to Gingrich securing a government job for Pournelle’s son, Richard. At the time, Pournelle and Gingrich were reported to be collaborating on, ‘a science fiction political thriller.’ Pournelle’s relationship with Gingrich was long established even then, as Pournelle had written the preface to Gingrich’s book, Window of Opportunity (1985). ”

The latter title was Gingrich’s ode to commercial space development. I recall attending a book-signing party for it, when I was editor of Space Business News (1983-1985). I also recall avoiding shaking hands with the author….

Among exhibitors booked for the SFF conference is TEA Party in Space, which says: “Our goal is nothing less than the expansion of American civilization into the solar system. Fifty years ago, the United States was in a Space Race with the Soviet Union. Our nation applied the strategy we had developed in World War II – a ‘crash’ federal research and development program that spared no expense to accomplish the short-term goal of landing an American on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth. America can no longer afford the big government ‘crash’ model. We must return to traditional American free-market principles to expand permanently into space. It was American individuals and businesses who pioneered the wilderness, built a continent-spanning nation, and created the most prosperous economy in the history of humanity.”

Oy vey….

It’s ironic, to me, that the Obama administration and its space agency, NASA, which are advocating for expanding international cooperation in space activities, are at the same time – tacitly if not openly – condoning an ideological perspective that is baffling and even discomforting to many non-U.S. citizens (and a good number of U.S. citizens as well).

After writing this post I can’t help but worry about how and where our education system has failed people – college-educated people – who in adulthood appear to have a limited understanding of U.S. history and political economy.

Of course they may accuse me of the same shortcoming….

In fact it happened quite recently. A Forbes contributor responded to my critique of an article he wrote about the glorious future of space development that lies before us by commenting (among other things), “I don’t know if you’re familiar with the way any other exploration initiatives have happened on our planet over the past thousand years or so.”

I’m afraid I am.

That’s why I’m concerned.

I’m reminded now of a radio report I heard this morning about Republican politician Mitch Daniels’ effort, while governor of Indiana, to ban the works of populist historian Howard Zinn from the state’s schools. Daniels called Zinn’s best-selling book, A People’s History of the United States, a “”truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”

I’ve read this book – and used it with students. While of course Daniels is entitled to his opinion, I have to say that I’m confident that it’s misinformed. And for a politician to limit students’ access to different perspectives on history is definitely misguided at best.

* Linda Billings, “Ideology, advocacy, and space flight – evolution of a cultural narrative,” pp. 483-500 in Steven J. Dick and Roger D. Launius, eds., Societal Impacts of Space Flight (NASA SP-2007-4801), National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Washington, DC, 2007.

Asteroid Dreams, Part 7: keyword=uncertainty


The week before last was a near-marathon of meetings in Washington, D.C., about near-Earth objects (NEOs) and the Obama administration’s proposal for an “Asteroid Redirect Mission” (ARM) and its “Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission” (ARRM). Today I’ll try to sum up what I heard at the first two of these meetings. (I’ll cover the third meeting in a subsequent post.)

The primary message I took home by the end of that week is that many, many different types, levels, and ranges of uncertainty are involved in most if not all of the predictions, projections, and estimates of NEO populations and characteristics, NEO target candidates for robotic retrieval and human exploration, ARM spacecraft design, etc., etc.

On Monday July 8, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Secure World Foundation provided a lunchtime briefing for congressional staffers on “NEOs: Addressing the Current Threat Level.”

First, a comment: the “threat/response” rhetoric so prevalent in the NEO community, and which I heard at this briefing, is bothersome, as “threat” implies agency. A nation or an army or a person can, by choosing a target (identifying an “enemy”), pose a threat to another nation or army or person. An asteroid has no agency. It is a natural object, and it cannot choose a target. And the pinball-machine or “cosmic shooting gallery” analogy is not adequate to describe the space environment, as no agency is involved (that is, no one’s operating the flippers or pulling the trigger).

At the Capitol Hill event, NEO experts told a standing-room-only crowd (offer them free lunch, and they will come) about current NEO tracking and characterization efforts and ideas for defending Earth from NEO impacts. Experts discussed probabilistic NEO impact risk assessments, deaths-per-year estimates, and “significant uncertainty” in estimates of the NEO population.

Keyword: uncertainty.

At Tuesday July 9’s “Target NEO 2” workshop, organized by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), sponsored by Ball Aerospace, and held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., NASA, industry, and academic experts aired their plans, assumptions, questions, and concerns about the ARM.

NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmeier said NASA’s ARM plan calls for an asteroid robotic retrieval mission (ARRM) to capture a small NEO (7-10 meters diameter, ca. 500 tons) and redirect it into an orbit in the vicinity of the Moon, for future human exploration. On NASA’s proposed ARM schedule, the ARRM spacecraft must be built before its NEO target is identified, in 2016, with ARRM launch planned for 2017 and human exploration of the asteroid planned for as early as 2021.

Southwest Research Institute’s (SwRI’s) Bill Bottke asked why NASA is proposing such an aggressive schedule for the ARM. Gersteinmeier said it’s because NASA’s already working on the components of the ARM (NEO identification and characterization, solar electric propulsion, autonomous guidance and control, new extravehicular activity technology, and the Orion/SLS human space flight system).

APL NEO expert Cheryl Reed asked if the ARRM spacecraft will have to be “overdesigned” due to the need to build it before its target is identified. Gerstenmeier said it “probably” will be, noting that NASA is still considering whether the ARRM target should be a small asteroid or a “boulder” to be grabbed off the surface of a larger asteroid.

Many NEO experts expressed reservations about the viability of the latter option.

NEO expert Al Harris cautioned that “in choosing a very low [velocity] target, you need to have very good physical characterization of the object if you want to be sure you aren’t bringing a piece of the moon back to its home, or even an old rocket body.”

APL’s Andy Rivkin reported that among factors that need to be pinned down precisely before a NEO can be identified as a suitable ARM target are composition, albedo, density, size, and rotation rate. Thus far these factors for small NEOS tend to be extrapolations from observations of large NEOs (Doctor Linda would call them guesstimates.)

SwRI’s Bill Bottke said the accuracy of current NEO-orbit models for calculating the orbits of small NEOs “is unknown – I would say very suspect.” Bottke also reported that recent observations have detected “mini-moons” orbiting some near-Earth asteroids that are temporarily captured in Earth orbit (for years or decades). Among these mini-moons are a few meter-size objects and a dozen half-meter size objects. Perhaps these “minimoons” should be considered as possible ARM targets, he suggested.

Bottke and others noted that electrostatic forces are important in forming small NEOs, and consequently many of these objects could be as loosely bound as “sandcastles” or “sandbars.” If a spacecraft were to try to bag, grab, capture or probe such an object, it could disintegrate.

Paul Chodas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s NEO Program Office said 14 known asteroids satisfy ARM candidate requirements…. Four candidates on this list have been or will be partially characterized.” In the ARM candidate characterization process, he noted, rapid response after discovery “is essential.”

Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, warned NEO researchers “to be very cautious about identifying uncertainties” in their observations, estimations, models, and predictions.

Steve Larson of the University of Arizona’s Catalina [NEO] Sky Survey noted that, compared to NEO searching in general, searching for ARM targets is problematic, because smaller NEOs are usually faint and move fast and have short observing windows.

JPL’s Amy Mainzer, principal investigator for NASA’s now-completed NEOWISE mission, reported that NEOWISE discovered 750 NEOs, including 146 new objects, in its one-year survey, the smallest of which is 8 meters in diameter. If NASA were to restart NEOWISE – which apparently is likely – it could discover 50-60 new NEOs per year, 25 percent of which would likely be potentially hazardous asteroids. (Mainzer and her colleagues have also proposed a “NEOCam” mission – a NEO observing camera that would be launched as a piggy-back payload with a larger satellite to geostationary orbit. NEOCam could discover and characterize up to 1,000 NEOs per year, she said.)

Tim Spahr commented that NEO discovery by amateur observers, using small-ground-based telescopes, “is basically over,” as most of the larger, brighter objects have been found. They’d need bigger, better hardware to find the smaller, fainter objects, he said. JPL’s NEO radar expert Lance Benner noted that amateurs can now make other contributions to the NEO survey effort.

Okay, this post is plenty long enough. I’ll finish up my notes on the Target NEO 2 Workshop in a later post. Stay tuned.