In reviewing literature for a paper that I’m writing, I’ve come across a marvelous paper published in the journal Social Studies of Science in 2007. In “Colliding worlds: asteroid research and the legitimization of war in space,” British scholar Felicity Mellor thoroughly documents the evolution of the NEO-threat narrative in the late 20th century. She shows how “during the 1980s and 1990s, a small group of planetary scientists and astronomers set about actively promoting the asteroid impact threat,” drawing an “an expanded empirical base” and also on “narratives of technological salvation.” By the turn of the new century, she observed, “the meaning of asteroids had gone from being distant relics of Solar System history to being a hidden enemy that could strike at any time with catastrophic consequences.”
My direct involvement with the NEO community of scientists who study NEOs began around the turn of the century. Picking up where Mellor left off, I will focus in my paper on the continued evolution and propagation of the NEO-threat-response story in the 21st century, up to and including the Obama Administration’s embrace of a human mission to an asteroid, asteroid mining, and the need for “planetary defense” against NEO impacts.
Mellor is interested, as I am, in “the ideological function of narrative,” and she explores in her paper how astronomers and planetary scientists who believed funding agencies were paying insufficient attention to NEO observation and characterization joined forces, over time, with nuclear weapons developers who were looking for a worthy target for their “toys.” This joining of science and war is nothing new. Nonetheless, I have always found it disturbing, and I find it disturbing in what I call “NEO World.” This coupling was very much in evidence during the proceedings of this year’s international planetary defense conference, which I wrote about in a previous post. (If you’re interested in more on nuking asteroids, see this post.)
By a thorough examination of technical papers, official reports, and popular accounts, Mellor saw how “scientists promoting the [NEO] impact threat have repeatedly turned to narratives of technological salvation that imagined the ultimate superweapon – a space-based planetary defense system that would protect the Earth from the cosmic enemy.””
Think of the current “save the world!” mantra repeated by many advocates of the administration’s Asteroid Initiative. Even corporate mining of the asteroids for precious metals and other marketable materials is promoted these days as a way to “save the world”. Really.
If you don’t believe me, check out this Google+ “hangout” on asteroids, offered by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on May 31. I tuned in live. Speakers included then-NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Planetary Society Executive Director Bill Nye, B612 Foundation CEO Ed Lu, Planetary Resources Co-Chairman Peter Diamandis, and OSTP assistant director for grand challenges Cristin Dorgelo. (Just FYI, from 2006-2012 Dorgelo was vice president for prize operations with the X Prize Foundation, founded and headed by Peter Diamandis.) I found the discussion a cheerleading session for B612, Planetary Resources, and NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission. No surprise…. Pretty much everybody chanted the “save the world” mantra, claiming that’s what their respective projects would do. (If you don’t believe me, you can hear it for yourself, here.)
Back to Mellor. “By 2002,” she noted, “the notion that asteroids were threatening objects had become commonplace among asteroid scientists.” Right on. Whether knowingly or not, these scientists were promulgating a “traditional narrative logic” which demands a cause and an effect – say, a threat and a response. Thus they constructed NEOs as actors, as objects with agency, and what NASA’s NEO program prefers to call “potentially hazardous asteroids” became “killers” and “destroyers.” The result was, and remains, what Mellor characterizes as “the construal of asteroids as acting agents, of astronomy as the means to salvation, and of human intervention in space as a moral cause.”
And where does this narrative lead? According to Mellor, it led these scientists into “collaborations with weapons scientists and helped fuel a discourse of fear that served a particular ideological purpose.”
I’ll offer a couple of quotes that come to mind as I consider this matter. “Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness” (Marshall McLuhan – and, no, that’s not a typo. And “What a man [sic] believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts” (George Bernard Shaw).
Talk amongst yourselves….