Saving the world from asteroids: who’s in charge here?

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(Image credit: http://www.shutterstock.com)

Last Friday I observed a press conference held to publicize an Association of Space Explorers (ASE) statement submitted to the United Nations urging global action to protect Earth from the “threat” of asteroid impacts. (You can watch the event yourself on YouTube here.)

What was remarkable about this event was that, amidst an hour’s worth of discussion about the need to monitor near-Earth objects and take steps toward defense against possible NEO impacts with Earth, there was no mention of existing efforts along these lines. Whether unintentionally or not, none of the ASE members on the podium mentioned that United States has a NEO observing program and that the Minor Planet Center is already gathering and distributing global data on NEOs and issuing alerts about potentially hazardous asteroids.

No one said a word about NASA’s NEO observation program, the Obama administration’s request to double the budget for this program in fiscal year 2014 (a request held hostage by congressional budget wrangling right now), NASA’s restart of the NEOWISE space-based infrared NEO observation campaign (in 2014), the Minor Planet Center’s global database of NEO observations and its global communication network for issuing alerts about potentially hazardous asteroids, NASA’s collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Administration on NEO impact preparedness and response…and so on.

(Full disclosure: I do research for NASA’s NEO program. That said, no one at NASA asked me to write this blog. I found the oversight glaring and decided it was worth a post.)

Friday’s press conference was held by the ASE, whose members are astronauts and cosmonauts with space flight experience. The event was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) and moderated by AMNH astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Three of the ASE members on stage, ex-NASA astronauts Rusty Schweickart, Ed Lu, and Tom Jones, are principals* of the B612 Foundation, which is engaged in a fund-raising campaign to pay for a space-based NEO observation spacecraft called Sentinel. Though no one mentioned it at the event, I viewed the press conference as part of B612’s fund-raising campaign.

NASA’s NEO Program, formally established in 1998 in response to congressional directive, is responsible for finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects. The NEO Program sponsors internal and external research projects. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) manages a NEO Program Office for the Headquarters NEO Program. At Friday’s event, Schweickart did mention in passing Don Yeomans, who manages JPL’s NEO program office once or twice. He did not mention that Don works for the NEO program.

National Space Policy (June 28, 2010) directs NASA to “pursue capabilities, in cooperation with other departments, agencies, and commercial partners, to detect, track, catalog, and characterize near-Earth objects to reduce the risk of harm to humans from an unexpected impact on our planet and to identify potentially resource-rich planetary objects.” The White House Asteroid Initiative proposed in 2013 calls for an expanded NEO program.

The NEO program supports NEO surveys that promise a sustained, productive search for and/or follow-up observations of sufficient astrometric precision to allow the accurate prediction of the trajectories of discovered objects. The program also supports efforts to characterize a representative sample of NEOs by measuring their sizes, shapes, and compositions. It supports both internal and external NEO projects. The NEO program is devoting a limited amount of funding to research into NEO impact mitigation and deflection strategies and techniques.

All NEO search or follow-up programs supported by the NASA program are required to make their data permanently available in a timely manner to the scientific community. The internationally recognized archive for this data is the International Astronomical Union (IAU) Minor Planet Center, located at the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

In conducting its work, the NEO program collaborates with other U.S. government agencies, other national and international agencies, and professional and amateur astronomers around the world. For example, NASA works closely with the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the Department of State on NEO impact mitigation and response planning. NASA’s NEO program participates in the International Spaceguard Survey, initiated in the 1990s and managed by the Spaceguard Foundation. The NASA program is responsible for facilitating communications between the astronomical community and the public should any potentially hazardous NEO be discovered.

For its first 10 years or so, the NASA NEO program operated on a budget averaging around $4 million per year. In April 2010, President Obama announced a new goal for NASA: a human mission to an asteroid. The President’s fiscal year 2012 budget request included, and Congress authorized, $20.4 million for an expanded NASA NEO observation program. (I’m not sure how much of that money was actually appropriated.) The President’s fiscal year 2014 budget request for NASA includes $105 million to begin work on an “asteroid redirect” mission, including $40 million – a doubled budget – for the NASA NEO Program. (Again, current congressional budget wrangling is holding these funds hostage, as far as I know.) The administration’s three-part “Asteroid Initiative” includes planning for a human mission to an asteroid, a “grand challenge” to develop a NEO defense system, and an expanded NEO observation program.  The NEO program is tasked with identifying and characterizing NEOs suited to capture, retrieval, and human exploration.

ASE describes its latest statement to the U.N. as a “call for global cooperation to confront asteroid threats.” I must note that global cooperation is well under way. The challenge is not reaching global agreement on the need for NEO defense. Agreement has not been reached on who’s responsible for financing such a defense, and I’m guessing that’s going to take awhile. According to an October 25 ASE press release, ASE’s statement to the U.N. is “a challenge to the global community to take the next vital steps to confront the threat from dangerous asteroids.” You can find those next steps in the ASE statement, here.

Getting back to the press conference, let me pose a question: What do you get when you issue a press release, hold a press conference, and offer up (ex) astronauts as experts? The answer? Free media coverage! (Without critical analysis, I’ll note.)

In its report on the event, Scientific American said, “The U.N. plans to set up an “International Asteroid Warning Group” for member nations to share information about potentially hazardous space rocks. If astronomers detect an asteroid that poses a threat to Earth, the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space will help coordinate a mission to launch a spacecraft to slam into the object and deflect it from its collision course…. [T]he Association of Space Explorers (ASE) recommended these steps to the U.N. as a first step to address at the long-neglected problem of errant space rocks.” This is a rather nebulous and, I think, not quite accurate, description of a complex process. For one, ASE is only one of many parties – including NASA and the European Space Agency – that participated in the process of developing the COPUOS recommendations. For another, these recommendations are not ASE recommendations, they are COPUOS recommendations, adopted at a meeting in June.

Scientific American dutifully noted that “the B612 Foundation, a non profit Lu founded to address the problem of asteroid impacts, is developing a privately funded infrared space telescope called Sentinel, which it hopes to launch in 2017.” (Contributions welcome.)

Space.com’s report on the press conference is headlined,” Global Effort Needed to Defend Earth from Asteroids, Astronauts Tell UN.” The lead of this story states, “Members of the United Nations met with distinguished astronauts and cosmonauts this week in New York to begin implementing the first-ever international contingency plan for defending Earth against catastrophic asteroid strikes.” Again, I don’t think this statement is quite accurate – though I’m sure the ASE is perfectly happy with it.

Popular Mechanics also covered the press conference, reporting that “Tom Jones—former NASA astronaut, committee member of the Association of Space Explorers (ASE), and PopMech contributor” – the article didn’t mention that Jones is also a “strategic advisor” to the B612 Foundation – “said that ASE and the U.N.’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space have been working on the plan for dealing with asteroids for six years.” It would be more accurate to say that COPUOS has been working on NEO impact hazard/planetary defense issues for many years, in consultation with ASE and many other governmental and non-governmental organizations. “The first step is for space agencies to set up an International Asteroid Warning Network.”

Organization of an IAWN is well under way, with a first meeting of an IAWN steering committee likely to occur before the end of this year, I’m told.

For reasons that are not fully understood, our culture gives great authority to those who have been in space, simply because they’ve been in space. (See my blog post on this phenomenon.) If a bunch of ex-astronauts tell a bunch of reporters that they have a plan to save the world, who’s going to question them? ASE and B612, both astronaut-driven groups, are relying on what scholars have called a narrative of technological salvation to rally supporters behind their proposals to “save the world” from asteroids. (Nobody at the Friday press conference chanted the “save the world” mantra – at least not out loud.) With budget and staffing reductions in the news media industry coupled with the development of a global 24/7 news environment, journalists have little time to do research and fact-checking. Thus news sources have a greater obligation than ever to provide accurate and complete information on whatever “news” they may be peddling.

That’s my five cents worth….

* Schweickart is co-founder and chair emeritus of the B612 Foundation and also founder of the Association of Space Explorers. Lu is co-founder and CEO of B612. Jones is a “strategic  advisor” to B612.

Craig Venter’s story of himself, critiqued

synthetic-life

(Credit: “How to manufacture the notion of synthetic life,” Steve Talbott, Southern Cross Review, http://southerncrossreview.org/71/talbott-synthetic.html)

I cannot resist blogging about Harvard historian Sophia Roosth’s review of Craig Venter’s latest book glorifying – I mean, about – himself. Entitled “The Godfather, Part II,” and published in the October issue of Science, Roosth’s review politely yet effectively pokes at some of his grand (grandiose?) claims.

I’m not a fan of Venter. I’m not among those throngs who worship rich men with egos the size of their bank accounts. (I don’t need to name names, do I?) I’m also not a fan of Venter because he has skewed the public discourse about the origin, evolution, and nature of life in ways that, while they may seem interesting to many, are not especially advancing the cause of advancing public understanding of this complex field of science. (Yes, I have my biases, having worked with the astrobiology community for many years….)

“Craig Venter is a singular individual who aspires to be universal,” Roosth begins. In his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life (a.k.a. The Godfather, Part II), Roosth informs us, he fantasizes that – to quote from the book – “since my own genome was sequenced, my software has been broadcast…into space…. Borne upon those weaves, my life now moves at the speed of light.” Roosth notes that Venter wonders, in his book, “whether an alien civilization might understand and act upon his genome’s broadcast ‘instructions’.”

Throughout the book, Roosth observes, “Venter’s self-fashioning is careful. He savors his perceived iconoclasm…. He believes himself righteous yet embattled….” Yes, indeed.

Roosth addresses my own biggest beef with Venter – his claim of producing synthetic life.  Both Venter’s claim “and the breathless press it garnered – which posed Venter as both god and parent to synthetic life – have been criticized….” Venter takes credit, as Roosth describes it, for “sequencing the M. mycoides genome, synthesizing and assembling it in a yeast cell, and transplanting it into M. capricolum cells to produce ‘the first living self-replicating species to have a computer as a parent’,” As she notes in her review, critics claim – as far as I can tell, rightfully – “the genome wasn’t designed but sequenced from extant M. mycoides. Further, it was inserted into a recipient cell.” Thus, Venter’s “synthetic life” was not made from scratch.

In his book, Roosth says, Venter responds to these critics by claiming they “misunderstand what both ‘synthetic’ and ‘life’ mean.”

Wow.

Roosth concludes by wondering, “What was life in 1943, what is it in 2013, and what will it become next? Despite staggering developments in molecular biology since the 1940s, I’m struck by how little has changed.” (Same here, for what it’s worth.) “If Venter is to be believed, life itself has been recreated, yet the same hoary debates are still being aired: mechanism versus vitalism, form versus substance, experimental deduction versus proof by synthesis. Life, it seems, moves more slowly than Venter supposes.”

Thanks, Professor Roosth! Now I don’t have to read the book.