NEO impacts: on the disaster-planning agenda



It’s now official – as a result of fruitful collaborations over the past year or so, NASA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have agreed to form and co-lead a Near-Earth Object (NEO) Impact Working Group that will be “responsible for reviewing disaster response and recommending future exercises and messaging” for NEO impact scenarios. This group will hold its first meeting in 2014.

In a February 12 letter to John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden reported on this agreement as “one aspect of better preparing the Nation to respond” to NEO impact hazards. Their report follows an October 15, 2010, letter from OSTP to Congress reporting on the responsibilities of Federal in the event of a NEO impact event.

Along with the letter, NASA and FEMA gave Holdren a report on a NASA-FEMA NEO impact tabletop exercise held April 5, 2013, at FEMA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“A primary goal” of the April 2013 NASA-FEMA exercise “was to acquaint FEMA with the nature of an asteroid or comet impact and how a warning of an impact might evolve if the threatening object was detected a short time prior to possible impact,” according to the report (“Tabletop Exercise for Short Warning Near Earth Object Event,” summary report for NASA HQ SMD Planetary Sciences Division NEO Program Office, August 19, 2013. See the link at the left for this “TTX” report.)

I observed the 2013 exercise – it was fascinating, a learning experience for all present. (Reminder: I do communication research for NASA’s NEO Program.) NASA and FEMA agreed to form their NEO Impact Working Group as a result of this exercise. Here’s the scenario for it:

“An asteroid…as large as 100 meters in diameter was discovered approximately one month before it might impact. The initial probability of impact was about 10%, or based on the initial tracking data, there was 90% likelihood that the object would not strike Earth. As more tracking data was obtained, the object’s orbit was refined, resulting in certain impact being predicted two weeks prior to the projected impact date. At that time, the locations of possible impact points extended roughly from Pittsburg, PA, to the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of North Carolina, which included possible impact in the neighborhood of Washington. D.C. Final orbit measurements in the last two weeks placed the most likely impact as being in the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia/North Carolina coastline.”

(Are you all awake now? Can you imagine hearing this announcement on National Public Radio? Can you see why communication planning is critical?)

Even though we were dealing with a hypothetical scenario, the actors kept it real in the exercise. It was not until one week before (hypothetical) impact that scientists could say with certainty where the impact would occur. Thus the need for long-term planning was made apparent.

The three primary recommendations coming out of this exercise were to:

  1. “Improve tools for communications” about NEO impact hazards.
  2. “Develop a national response plan.”
  3. “Explore establishment of a FEMA-led NEO Impact Working Group.”

NASA and FEMA are planning another NEO impact exercise for this spring. According to the February 12 letter, “FEMA leadership has agreed to conduct a Federal Interagency NEO TTX through the Emergency Support Function Leadership Group in 2014.” The International Asteroid Warning Network Steering Committee, meeting in Cambridge, Massachusetts, last month was informed of NEO impact tabletop exercises being planned in Europe this year. NEO impact hazard planning and disaster mitigation is now on the metaphorical radar.

The International Asteroid Warning Network – it’s alive!



Last month I had the privilege of participating in the first meeting of the Steering Committee for the fledgling International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), which is up and running. A report on the meeting is now available online. (Thanks to my NASA colleagues Rob Landis and Paul Abell for writing this meeting report.)

The IAWN meeting took place January 13-14 at the Minor Planet Center (MPC) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Committee members in attendance included representatives of Russia’s Institute of Astronomy and Academy of Sciences, the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), NASA’s Near Earth Object Program*, the MPC, the German Aerospace Center (DLR), the European Space Agency (ESA).

I was asked to organize a panel discussion for the Steering Committee meeting on challenges in communicating about NEO impact hazards. (Thanks to my panel of experts – Dennis Mileti, David Ropeik, and Richard Sheldon – for their contributions.) At the end of their meeting the committee decided to organize a separate workshop for the IAWN on communication issues. (Preliminary planning is under way.)

The IAWN was organized in response to a recommendation from the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS). It operates independently of the U.N., at no cost to the U.N., under the auspices of interested national agencies.

A NEO “action team” reporting to COPUOS last year recommended steps toward mitigating NEO impact hazards, including finding potentially hazardous NEOs and identifying those that warrant action. The IAWN was proposed to take on this task.

According to NEO action team chair Sergio Camacho, “The General Assembly of the United Nations has long agreed that an international response is necessary to coordinate and develop mitigation measures to address” NEO impact hazards, including “detection, follow-up, and characterization” of potentially hazardous NEOs and development of possible deflection techniques. “Initial plans for an international response were contained in the recommendations of the Working Group on NEOs. These plans, which included the establishment of the IAWN, were adopted as an outcome of the 50th Session of the UN COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) held in Vienna, Austria from 11-22 February 2013.”

As a first step, the NEO action team “recommended the establishment of the IAWN by continuing to link together the institutions that are already performing many of the necessary functions including: discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing the potentially hazardous NEO population; maintaining an international authoritative clearing house for the receipt, acknowledgment and processing of all NEO observations; recommending policies regarding criteria and thresholds for notification of an emerging impact threat; and developing a strategy using well-defined communication plans and protocols to assist governments in the analysis of impact consequences and in the planning of mitigation responses,” according to Camacho.

See section IX, “Near Earth Objects,” in the draft report on the February 2014 meeting of the Scientific and Technical Committee of COPUOS (A/AC.105/C.1/L.335) for further details about the IAWN – what it is, what it’s supposed to do, how it’s supposed to operate. (Also see my October 28 blog post for clarification of some misconceptions about the IAWN that were propagated in the public discourse a while back.)

*Disclosure: My work is funded in part by NASA’s NEO Program.

More on American exceptionalism



In my continuing exploration of the ideology of American exceptionalism as it’s embedded in U.S. space exploration rhetoric, and following on my last blog post of 2013, I’ve just re-read the late, great Seymour Martin Lipset’s 1996 book, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. I recommend it.

“The United States is a country organized around an ideology which includes a set of dogmas about the nature of a good society. Americanism…is an ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms,” Lipset wrote. “The nation’s ideology can be described in five words: “liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.” Lipset explained how this belief system shaped, and continues to shape, our nation’s organizing principles and political institutions. And he observed that the only way to understand our own organizing principles and political institutions is to examine it in comparison with the organizing principles and political institutions of other nations. With the exception of the former Soviet Union, “other countries define themselves by a common history as birthright communities, not by ideology.”

I’ll take a crack at describing the two edges of the “sword” of American exceptionalism as I see them. The bright-and-shiny edge is about freedom and opportunity. It’s about being a leader and setting a good example to the world. The dark-and-jagged edge is about U.S. global dominance – being “the world’s only superpower” in the military, economic, technological and, of course, aerospace arenas, being the leader. It’s about promoting capitalism and development, whenever and wherever possible, according to the principle that those who get there first get the most.

I kept thinking as I leafed through Lipset’s book that, on the surface, American exceptionalism as it appears in space exploration rhetoric looks bright and shiny – it’s about the U.S. leading in space exploration for the benefit of humankind. Beneath that shiny surface, though, is the economic neoliberal/libertarian ideology embedded in space exploration rhetoric. I’ve written about this ideology before – for example, in this post. This ideology embraces space as a wide-open frontier, open to exploitation and colonization, ripe for “commercialization” unfettered by government oversight. (My most popular blog post of last year took yet another look at the ever-dangerous frontier metaphor.)

And now the Obama administration is promoting the idea of corporate asteroid mining promoting the idea of corporate asteroid mining. Yikes.

What the rest of the world calls liberalism, “Americans refer to as ‘conservatism’: a deeply anti-statist doctrine emphasizing the virtues of laissez-faire,” Lipset explained. The late economist Milton Friedman, an inspiration to the Reagan administration, was a leading ideologue of 20th century American “liberalism.” This ideology inspires today’s economic neoliberals and their more extreme libertarian cousins.

For a taste of this thinking, see Friedman’s 1970 piece in The New York Times Magazine, “The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” Friedman, author of Capitalism and Freedom, among other things, dismissed the idea that businesses have any responsibilities other than making money. “In a free-enterprise, private-property system, a corporate executive is an employee of the owners of the business. He has direct responsibility to his employers. That responsibility is to conduct the business in accordance with their desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible…. The doctrine of ‘social responsibility’ involves the acceptance of the socialist view that political mechanisms, not market mechanisms, are the appropriate way to determine the allocation of scarce resources to alternative uses.”

Let “the market” run our lives? I don’t like it, one bit.

And now we have so-called asteroid mining companies claiming they’re going to exploit the alleged material wealth of our solar system for the benefit of humankind as well as for profit. I don’t buy it. (Meanwhile, Planetary Resources has hired Gephart Group Government Affairs – former congressman Dick Gephart’s D.C. firm – to lobby for it.)

As I’ve said before, I’m dismayed by the Obama administration’s uncritical embrace of this libertarian-style thinking about space exploration and development, so-called commercial space flight and all.

At last year’s Goddard Symposium, sponsored by the American Astronautical Society, John Olson, then a senior staffer with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, offered “White House…perspectives” on “national space policies and priorities for prosperity, progress, and protection.” The aim, he reported, is “bringing space into Earth’s economic sphere.” (This message was delivered to previous Goddard symposia at least twice by George W. Bush’s White House Science Adviser John Marburger.) It is a national space policy goal, according to Olson, to “energize competitive domestic industries.” It is a policy principle to enable a “robust and competitive commercial space sector.” And, of course, “leadership in space is a national priority.”

In an October 2013 speech to the Eisenhower Institute of Gettysburg College, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden once again described the U.S. as “the world’s leader in exploration…. [T]o the rest of the world…NASA and our nation’s aerospace community are doing incredible, unbelievable things. I am happy to be part of this field and to lead the world’s strongest space agency… We are absolutely following both the spirit and the letter of the Space Act…to benefit our nation, to make the most use of our emerging capabilities and develop new ones, in short to create a new world.”

Back to Lipset: he noted that exceptional “does not mean better.”

I wish that this administration – and the aerospace industry it supports – would rethink and at least turn down the volume on this old rhetoric. At a time when the U.S. needs to be building sustainable partnerships with other nations in order to continue exploring space, “USA, #1” is not an especially useful opener to productive conversations.






What is NASA for? Opinions abound

arguing internet


While I was on vacation, Charles Seife’s recent story on Slate, “What Is NASA For?” apparently annoyed some space boosters. I read the piece. It’s an opinion. We’re all entitled to one.

Seife’s necessarily abbreviated review of the history of the U.S. space program is, yes, slanted. Most are. As someone who has studied history (science, technology, journalism) and dug into space history as well, I’d like to note that history is not an objective documenting of “facts.” History is an interpretive and analytic discipline. Every history of the U.S. space program has a different flavor. Each interpreter of history figuratively stands in a unique place and sees the world from a unique perspective. (For more on this theme, check out historian Carl Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian.” It’s a great read.)

Not only the author lends a slant, but also the publisher lends its own slant. Slate, like many other trendy Web-based infotainment services (is Slate too old to be trendy?), likes to be edgy. (Slate’s editors probably would like to think of their site as edgy/”daringly innovative, on the cutting edge.” I think of Slate as edgy/”sharp-edged.” Both are dictionary definitions of the word.)

My review of the U.S. space program would be different from Seife’s. For example, I disagree with the latter part of his assessment that “human spaceflight was all but worthless for generating science or public excitement, and unmanned craft didn’t fill the void.” He’s referring specifically to the ‘80s at this point. It is the case that public interest in human space flight was, and is, not significantly higher or lower than it ever has been. I don’t recall that people were not interested in robotic space exploration missions. It’s certainly not true today. He’s entitled to his views. I’m entitled to mine.

I also disagree with Seife’s dismissal as “bunkum” McKay et al’s claims of finding fossil evidence of microbial life in a martian meteorite fragment – published in the peer-reviewed journal Science in 1996. Dictionary check: “bunkum” means “insincere talk.” The scientific consensus is that what McKay et al found was not fossil evidence of microbial life. The scientific community has not declared the claims “bunkum.” Like history, science is a matter of interpretation.

Journalists have opinions, just like space fans do. Slate offers plenty of breathless stories about space – try “Pluto Wins” and “When Will We Find Another Earth?” for starters. Enjoy.

While Seife’s story didn’t bother me at all, something else about its publication did. Seife’s story appeared in Slate’s department, “Mysteries of the Universe,” which features this tagline: “The Future of Science Made Possible by Statoil.”

Statoil is a Norway-based multinational oil and gas company with operations in more than 30 countries in North and South America, Africa, Europe, Russia, Asia, Middle East. According to Statoil’s fourth-quarter 2013 financial report, its net operating income for the quarter was NOK 43.9 billion (7.1 billion USD) and its adjusted earnings were 42.3 billion (6.9 billion USD). Adjusted earnings for the full year 2013 were 163.1 billion (26.6 billion USD).

Call me touchy, but this bothers me….

The Big Question: how did life begin?



How did life on Earth begin? Answering this question has been a top priority in exobiology and astrobiology for more than 50 years.

And how close are we to an answer?

Well…it’s complicated.

Here’s the good news: over the last 50 years or so, scientific understanding of what life (on Earth) is and is not, what life requires, what limits environments impose on life has grown by orders of magnitude.

Another side of this happy story is that, as a result of our vastly improved understanding of life on Earth as well as the creation and evolution of Earth and other planets and their place in the cosmic environment, scientists are now considering multiple viable theories about how life might have originated on this planet.

These theories are reviewed in an excellent essay published in the January 17 issue of Science magazine. Biochemists Jimmy Gollihar and Andrew Ellington of the Center for Systems and Synthetic Biology at the University of Texas and Matthew Levy of the Department of Biochemistry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine begin their review by observing, “The origin of life remains a daunting mystery in part because rather than knowing too little, we increasingly know about too many possible mechanisms that might have led to” life on Earth.

Well said.

“It is possible that it is not a knowledge of prebiotic synthesis that is wanting, but knowledge of prebiotic replication.” Thus, a number of research groups are focusing on synthesizing a cell that can replicate itself – no easy task, to put it mildly.

Origin of life theories have waxed and waned in prominence over the years. The results of Stanley Miller’s experiments of the 1950s, simulating presumed atmospheric conditions on the early Earth – supported the theory of abiogenesis – the origin of life on Earth from non-living matter. Space research over the next few decades showed that prebiotic compounds are present in the cosmos and that the complex organic components of life could have been delivered to Earth by comet and asteroid impacts. Deep-sea hydrothermal vents are under study as analogues to early-Earth environments that may have facilitated the origin of life. There’s the theory that mineral surfaces may have served as templates for the organic chemistry leading to life. Another theory is that life – single-celled life – may have originated elsewhere – say, on Mars – and been delivered to Earth by meteorites. And so on.

NASA astrobiologists recently published the results of a new round of testing of meteorite samples for prebiotic organic compounds. They detected amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – in a 360-microgram sample of a meteorite (that’s 360 millionths of a gram).


Meanwhile, “Exploring martian habitability” is the subject of a special section of the January 24 issue of Science, reporting on a year’s worth of findings of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) mission. In an introduction to this section, John Grotzinger, head of the MSL science team, says “early Mars was habitable, but this does not mean that Mars was inhabited.” What the MSL team is now aiming for is a better understanding “of how organic compounds are preserved in rocks.” A better understanding of these processes could help the MSL team “to narrow down where and how to find materials that could preserve fossils as well.”

There’s a lot of work to do on Mars. And we still don’t have a definitive answer to the question of how life began on Earth. However, we surely do have a lot of interesting research questions to answer.