International asteroid warnings: standing up a system?


I’ve posted a report (see left menu) on the results of a recent workshop held to tackle challenges in communicating about near-Earth object (NEO) hazards and NEO impact mitigation.

I was co-organizer and co-facilitator of the workshop and co-author of the workshop report, along with Laura Delgado Lopez of Secure World Foundation (SWF). SWF hosted this workshop, which was organized at the request and for the benefit of the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN), an international group of organizations involved in detecting, tracking, and characterizing NEOs. IAWN was organized in response to a United Nations (UN) recommendation and operates independently of the UN.

Our workshop, held in September in Colorado, brought together a diverse group of experts from the NEO science, risk communication, policy, and emergency management communities to provide communication guidance and advice to managers and directors of IAWN member programs and institutions, including NASA and the European Space Agency. (I am a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program on communication issues.)

One interesting recommendation that came out of the workshop is a proposal for a new, non-probabilistic scale for characterizing asteroid impact hazards and impact effects – that is, an impact effects scale.

Even if the NEO community chooses to adopt some sort of impact effects scale, it will still, IMHO, need to work on a better way of characterizing impact probabilities and risks. Many members of this community have come to understand that their Torino and Palermo scales, developed for use among experts, are not especially effective in communicating with non-expert audiences. A major challenge in communicating with non-experts about probabilistic risk assessments is that non-experts may not be cognizant of all the uncertainty surrounding these assessments.

The workshop report has been distributed to members of the IAWN Steering Committee. The Committee has not yet reviewed the report and thus has not yet endorsed or adopted any of the recommendations that came out of the workshop. (See p. 3 of the report for the recommendations.)

Stay tuned.

“Preparing for Discovery”: now on your computer screen


Credit: Library of Congress

For all you curious people who missed it and would like to tune in, the webcast of “Preparing For Discovery,” the Kluge Center/Library of Congress symposium on how we might prepare for the discovery of extraterrestrial life is now archived here.

I posted a preview of the symposium last month.

My talk – “The allure of alien life: from microbes to intelligent life” – is last on the agenda at the link above. (If you listen to it, let me know what you think, yes?) If you want to view my slides or read my full paper, look to the left (”pages”) for a link to them.

I addressed the modern history of public conceptions and perceptions of extraterrestrial life and speculated on how people might respond to the discovery of it. I talked about how pop-culture depictions of “aliens” are not about extraterrestrial life – they’re about us. I talked about the Western-white-male-centric thinking that “otherizes” people who are not like “us” – including fictional intelligent aliens (who are almost always “bad”). And I critiqued what I view as the ideology of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

I attended the symposium in its entirety and found it stimulating and thought-provoking. While all talks were interesting, I’ll mention just a few.

Planetary scientist Dirk Schulze-Makuch gave a fascinating talk about the striking diversity of life on Earth, speculating about the sorts of life that might be able to thrive in some extreme extraterrestrial environments, such as his favorite, Saturn’s moon Titan. (His slide show was terrific, check it out.)

Neuroscientist Lori Marino addressed “the landscape of intelligence,” arguing that the current approach to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence – that is, attempting to detect evidence of technology (mainly radio waves) – rests on flawed assumptions. As to what intelligence is, its boundaries are fuzzy, there are no consensus descriptions, and “it doesn’t fit into any theoretical framework.” SETI assumes that human intelligence is the only intelligence we know. And this assumption depends on more assumptions – that human intelligence is unique and that humans are superior to other species.

In a talk entitled “Equating culture, civilization, and moral development in imagining ETI,” anthropologist John Traphagan explained how what we can imagine depends on what we think we know. Our assumptions, beliefs, values, and experiences shape our imaginings. “We” (Western white people) tend to assume that “civilization” —m and definitions of this term are vague – inevitably leads to cultural and moral progress. “There’s little evidence that cultural evolution involves moral progress…. Moral values are cultural products…and they vary dramatically from one culture to another.”

For the record, Traphagan and I were not the only speakers on the agenda who critiqued the Western-white-male-centric thinking that underlies the search for extraterrestrial intelligence…. (It’s the same sort of thinking that underlies rationales for the human exploration, settlement, and exploitation of space, and I continue to be baffled by the Obama administration’s embrace of this old-school ideology.)

The Kluge symposium was organized by Steve Dick, the second Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology (2013-2014). The first Blumberg Chair was David Grinspoon (2012-2013). (I blogged about David’s Kluge symposium last year.) NASA and Kluge did not select anyone to fill the chair for the coming year (2014-2015). Instead, the Kluge Center intends to organize a series of dialogues on astrobiology. We can assume that some sort of announcement will be forthcoming….

Disturbing visions of our future in space


Last week I heard a conversation between a weirdly odd couple about space exploration.

At a meeting in Washington on October 2, science fiction author Neal Stephenson and NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan shared the stage to talk about their views about the human future in space.

This meeting, “Can We Imagine Our Way to a Better Future?”, was one in a series of “Future Tense” events sponsored by the New America Foundation in partnership with Arizona State University and Slate magazine. The October 2 event was organized around science fiction stories published in a new collection, Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future (HarperCollins, 2014). Neal Stephenson wrote the book’s preface, titled “Innovation Starvation.”

(I don’t know about you, but I don’t believe “we” are starved of innovation. I believe we’re short of the cash required to realize useful visions of change. I also believe that all too often “innovation” means “more” – more resource depletion, more profits for industry, more junk in our garbage dumps….)

The topic of the Stephenson-Stofan dialogue was “Lost in space: how should we approach our future frontier?” (I must note that on the printed agenda, the “frontier” was “final” – on the projection screen, “final” had mutated to “future.”)

“I grew up following the space program as “a heroic quest,” Stephenson began. “There’s a whole generation of bitterly disappointed people from the ‘60s” who haven’t gotten the space colonies and missions to Mars, the goals they dreamed of, he said. “I’m still stuck on the Elon-Musk-style heroic space [effort]. It’s almost an adolescent impulse.” The “inherent destiny” of humankind to expand its presence into space is all the justification I need for a bigger, better space exploration program, he declared. When moderator Patric Verrone (the very funny writer and producer of the very funny TV series “Futurama”) asked whether manifest destiny is enough to justify space exploration, Stephenson said it is.

Stofan said it’s not – “there is scientific justification” as well. Stofan disagreed with the idea that the U.S. space program is “lost in space” without a goal, offering up the James Webb Space Telescope – “unbelievably cool” – and the search for life on Mars. “At NASA we’re feeling like we have a clear goal.”

As for better methods of space propulsion – a major roadblock to more affordable space flight – Stephenson reported that after spending some time trying to come up better alternatives to chemical propulsion, he decided that “it’s almost a waste of time” because so many smart people have been working on the problem for so long, with no results. Stofan responded that NASA’s now investing a lot of effort in developing solar electric propulsion, and she also mentioned the option of nuclear thermal propulsion.

“We as a civilization do great, cool things,” Stofan observed. I can watch astronauts on the International Space Station on my phone, she said – “how cool is that?” She also noted that NASA’s “entering into a new realm,” partnering with the private sector. Someone in the audience commented that commercial interests are not the same as public interests. (Hear, hear.)

Also at this meeting, Tom Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology, touted Elon Musk as a role model for innovation. He also touted a paper authored by NASA employees and published last year as “a phenomenally inspiring long-term vision” for the U.S. space program.

Entitled “Affordable, rapid bootstrapping of the space industry and solar system civilization,” this paper (published in the Journal of Aerospace Engineering 26(1), 2013) argues that:

“Advances in robotics and additive manufacturing have become game-changing for the prospects of space industry. It has become feasible to bootstrap a self-sustaining, self-expanding industry at reasonably low cost. Simple modeling was developed to identify the main parameters of successful bootstrapping. This indicates that bootstrapping can be achieved with as little as 12 t landed on the Moon during a period of about 20 years…. The industry grows exponentially because of the free real estate, energy, and material resources of space. The mass of industrial assets at the end of bootstrapping will be 156 t with 60 humanoid robots or as high as 40,000 t with as many as 100,000 humanoid robots if faster manufacturing is supported by launching a total of 41 t to the Moon. Modeling over wide parameter ranges indicates this is reasonable, but further analysis is needed. This industry promises to revolutionize the human condition.”

Indeed, further analysis is needed.

Such developments certainly would “revolutionize the human condition” – but how? What legal and ethical issues must be faced in considering, let alone pursuing, such developments?

The idea that this administration is seriously considering these sorts of wild-eyed visions of exploitation is deeply disturbing.