Blowing the dust off an old belief system, again

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Today’s Senate Commerce Committee hearing on U.S. human exploration goals and commercial space competitiveness takes testimony from six white, male, human-exploration advocates, including three ex-astronauts.

I do not anticipate hearing a diversity of views from this line-up. Welcome to the Republican-controlled 114th Congress. (Update, Feb. 26: Marcia Smith provides a good summary of the hearing.)

Meanwhile, pro-space neoliberals, libertarians, and Tea-Partiers are lining up to promote a space colonization (they call it “settlement,” I call it “colonization”) agenda on Capitol Hill.

I was inclined to ignore their recent noise-making. Then I decided to add another chapter to my ongoing critique of this antiquated ideology.

A “pioneering space declaration” coming out of last week’s invitation-only “pioneering space national summit” claims that “the long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.” (I think they must mean “should be,” and I disagree.)

The National Space Society (NSS) and the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF), two of the organizations behind last week’s summit, announced yesterday that they and several other groups have created an Alliance for Space Development (ASD). Among ASD’s proclaimed objectives for this year is “incorporation of space development and settlement into the NASA Space Act.”

Members of this alliance include the Tea Party in Space, whose mission is “to educate and engage the American people and their elected representatives in applying the core principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets to the rapid and permanent expansion of American civilization into the space frontier, focusing on strategies for privatization, deregulation, and appropriate technology development partnerships between government institutions and the private sector.”

NSS’s “vision” is “people living and working in thriving communities beyond the Earth, and the use of the vast resources of space for the dramatic betterment of humanity.”

The Space Frontier Foundation claims its “purpose is to unleash the power of free enterprise and lead a united humanity permanently into the Solar System.”

And now more advocacy groups (or should I say Web sites?) are popping up to promote the same agenda. The rhetoric is so familiar (and still disturbing)….

An outfit called the EarthLight Foundation – which offers no information on who or what constitutes the group – has a “vision,” too: “To carry the light of life to places now dark, the seeds of life to places now dead, and the eyes, hands, and minds of humanity to places yet unseen, untouched, and unknown.” Projects of this foundation include an “Endowment for Tomorrow,” an “Up! Space Celebration,” and a “New Worlds Institute.” No information is provided on the first two, um, things.

The New Worlds Institute, which claims to be dedicated to “a future of unlimited possibility and abundance created by the human imagination, powered by the resources of space and made real using principles of democratic free enterprise,” says it plans a New Worlds Conference “about the future, hope and the infinite possibilities offered by an infinite frontier…. In 2045 this world will no longer be the only world we call home.” No information is provided on who or what constitutes this institute.

As I’ve said 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.”

The advocacy groups discussed in this post are promoting an outdated ideology as a foundation for national space policy. As a citizen, taxpayer, and policy analyst, I protest. Advocates for space settlement and other forms of exploiting extraterrestrial resources are overwhelmingly white and male. We females constitute 51 percent of the world’s population, and a majority of people on Earth are not “white.” We’ve had no national or international dialogue on goals and objectives for space exploration that could benefit all of humanity (I don’t care what the advocates say, asteroid mining would benefit mining companies, not humanity). Any “dialogues” that the pro-space community may point to have been organized by space advocates.

For decades, U.S. public opinion polling has shown that while a majority of respondents have supported having a space program, a majority has not supported spending more money on it. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center Initiative on Science and Society for the American Association for the Advancement of Science asked (U.S.) respondents “to consider whether the use of human astronauts in the U.S. space program is essential or not essential given the relative costs of manned vs. robotic space exploration”: 59 percent agreed that astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program. I must note, however, that this result says nothing about these respondents’ views on colonizing the solar system.

*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.

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NEO news round-up

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With an International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and a Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) now organized, the Working Group on Near-Earth Objects (NEOs) and its Action Team on NEOs (Action Team-14, or AT-14) has deemed its work completed.

AT-14 was established by the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2001. In a report on its fifty second session February 2-13 in Vienna, the COPUOS Scientific and Technical Subcommittee (STSC) says AT-14 is now dissolved. IAWN and SMPAG – a group established to work on plans for asteroid impact mitigation (a.k.a. planetary defense) missions – will now report directly to the STSC. Both groups were formed under the auspices of the U.N. but operate independently of it. AT-14 recommended that both groups seek permanent observer status with COPUOS.

(As a consultant to NASA’s NEO Observations Program, I have been involved in some IAWN activities.)

In a resolution adopted December 5, the U.N. General Assembly noted “the importance of information-sharing in discovering, monitoring and physically characterizing potentially hazardous near-Earth objects to ensure that all countries, in particular developing countries with limited capacity in predicting and mitigating a near-Earth object impact, are aware of potential threats, emphasizes the need for capacity-building for effective emergency response and disaster management in the event of a near-Earth object impact, and recalls in that regard the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat, endorsed by the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee at its fiftieth session and by the Committee at its fifty-sixth session. The General Assembly also “note[d] with satisfaction that progress on establishing an international asteroid warning network and a space mission planning advisory group to implement the recommendations for an international response to the near-Earth object impact threat would be reported to the Subcommittee at its fifty-second session.”

Meanwhile, following its 12th meeting last month, NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) stressed – as it did in findings from its 11th meeting last summer – the need for a dedicated space-based NEO survey. “A space-based near-Earth object (NEO) survey telescope would be a foundational asset that would most efficiently achieve the goals of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative in the shortest amount of time. Construction and implementation of such an asset should be supported by all three of NASA’s major space exploration directorates and not just by the limited resources of the Near-Earth Object Observations (NEOO) program within the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). Cross directorate support for a space-based asteroid survey is fully consistent with the Asteroid Initiative already established as an agency-wide goal.” SBAG also reiterated concerns “about the limited benefits of ARM [NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission] for advancing asteroid science or furthering planetary defense strategies, and that limits in the current knowledge of near-Earth asteroids contribute to schedule and cost risks.”

NASA had originally planned to announce its selection of option A or option B for the ARM in December. That decision was put on hold, and no one seems to know when it will be announced.

In an op-ed posted by Aviation Week today, space policy analyst Marcia Smith raises some questions about the ARM mission. “ARM is two good ideas kluged together into one bewildering idea that NASA itself seems unable to explain effectively.” Smith notes that one aspect of the ARM “that piques a lot of interest is the idea that ARM will lead to technologies to defend Earth from threatening asteroids (“planetary defense”).  Although that gets a lot of attention, it actually is not an expected outcome of ARM…. NASA needs an Asteroid Deflection Technology Development program, not ARM.”

On a more upbeat note, SBAG notes that this year will be “a banner year for small bodies science,” with missions to explore the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto and comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko. “The attention [these missions] will attract gives the small body science community a spectacular opportunity to communicate the value of our work,” SBAG notes in findings from its January meeting. “[W]e must all make an extra effort this year to engage with the public over these exciting missions.”

(Science magazine (December 14) declared the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landing of a probe on comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko the top science “breakthrough” or 2014.)

While the NEO community is essentially in agreement that a dedicated space-based NEO survey telescope would be a valuable asset, no one yet has the funding to develop such a mission. The B612 Foundation is attempting to raise private funding for such a telescope – its project is called Sentinel – but apparently has been unsuccessful thus far. The last Sentinel project status update posted on B612’s web site is dated September 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s proposal to build a Discovery-class NEO survey telescope called NEOCAM (NEO Camera) was not selected for funding the first time around. JPL resubmitted the NEOCAM proposal in response to NASA’s next Discovery call for proposals, and it’s currently under review. (Discovery missions must cost less than $425 million and take no more than three years to develop from mission start to launch.) In April 2013, an infrared sensor being developed for the NEOCAM mission passed a critical design test.

In a paper to be published in the Astronomical Journal (Mainzer et al. 2015 in press), NEOCAM principal investigator Amy Mainzer and her team report on simulations they conducted “to predict the performance of a new space-based telescopic survey operating at thermal infrared wavelengths that seeks to discover and characterize a large fraction of the potentially hazardous near-Earth asteroid (NEA) population” – that is, NEOCAM. The team considered two potential architectures for the survey: a telescope located at the Earth-Sun L1 Lagrange point, and one in a Venus-trailing orbit. Their results “indicate that the Earth-Sun L1 and Venus-trailing surveys achieve similar levels of integral completeness for potentially hazardous asteroids larger than 140 m; placing the telescope in an interior orbit does not yield an improvement in discovery rates.” They report that the L1 survey “slightly outperforms the Venus-trailing survey for PHAs in this [larger than 140 meters] size range.”

“Unlike ground-based surveys, space telescopes at either L1 or Venus-trailing orbits can spend much of their time surveying the region of sky that is in the daytime sky for ground-based observers. Therefore, the ability to perform ‘self follow up’ is essential because ground-based observers cannot be relied upon regularly for the short-term follow up required to determine orbits securely,” they note.

Mainzer et al claim their results “demonstrate that the cost, complexity, and risk associated with sending a survey telescope to a Venus-trailing orbit is unwarranted. While neither survey [architecture] is capable of fulfilling the 2005 Congressional mandate to NASA to find 90% of all near-Earth objects larger than 140 m in diameter by 2020, an advanced space-based survey can make significant progress quickly.”

Finally, as spring approaches (what a nice thought!), we’ll be hearing more about International Asteroid Awareness Day – a.k.a. Asteroid Day. (You can read more about Asteroid Day in one of my earlier posts.) Many of my colleagues in the NEO community are skeptical of one particular “call to action” in a declaration for which Asteroid Day sponsors are seeking signatures – “a rapid hundred-fold (100x) acceleration of the discovery and tracking of Near-Earth Asteroids to 100,000 per year within the next ten years.” They say it’s a nice idea, but likely impossible to achieve for a number of reasons.

Stay tuned….

John Podesta and UFOs – again…

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Credit: @ETsAndUFOs, twitter.com

On February 13, John Podesta – a senior advisor to presidents Clinton and Obama and founder of the Center for American Progress, a D.C. think tank – tweeted:

John Podesta 

‪@Podesta44

  1. Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the ‪#disclosure of the UFO files. ‪#thetruthisstilloutthere cc: ‪@NYTimesDowd

A few media outlets, major and minor, have reported on this tweet – see, for example, an item in the Washington Post.

Podesta reportedly is about to run a Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

Podesta’s UFO tweet was retweeted 2,075 times as of today. (Podesta also uses @JohnPodesta on Twitter – no mention of UFOs there….) That is, it hasn’t gone viral.

Meanwhile, at MoveOn.org, a petition has been posted to solicit support for UFO “disclosure”:

“It’s been 45 years since Congress held a hearing on extraterrestrial phenomena. The evidence is now massive. Hold new hearings. #Disclosure

On November 5, 2014 538 video copies of the full record of the Citizen Hearing on Disclosure (CHD) were shipped to all members of the United States Congress. Shortly after these 10-DVD sets are received, PRG’s [Paradigm Research Group’s] registered lobbyist, Stephen Bassett, will renew direct engagement of the U. S. Congress for the first time since 2000 seeking new congressional hearings on extraterrestrial related phenomena. http://paradigmresearchgroup.org, http://youtu.be/WZBN_9NMhUA.”

As of today, the petition has 145 signatures and is shooting for 200.

In 1988, John Podesta and his brother Tony Podesta formed a lobbying company, known over time as Podesta Associates and PodestaMattoon. Since 2007, it’s been known as the Podesta Group (and headed by Tony Podesta). John Podesta is not currently listed as “talent” on the Podesta Group’s web site. According to Wikipedia, the Podesta Group “has close ties to the Democratic Party and the Obama administration.”

I wrote about one of John Podesta’s earlier UFO disclosure efforts in my dissertation (“Sex! Aliens! Harvard? Rhetorical boundary-work in the media, published 2005). Here’s the story.

But first, a few words about “UFOlogy.”

All “ologys” are social constructions. Not all are legitimate. One strategy that UFOlogists have employed to establish credibility for UFOs as a legitimate research subject and themselves as legitimate researchers is to rhetorically construct UFOs as phenomena in the natural world, thus locating them inside the boundaries of legitimate science. Another strategy has been to locate the UFO phenomenon outside the boundaries of conventional science, where the authority of conventional science does not apply.

Now the story….

A project undertaken by cable television’s Sci Fi Channel (now known as Sy Fy), framed as an effort to construct scientific authority for UFOlogy, appeared to me to be a media campaign that served the purpose of promoting TV programming. In 2001-2002, Sci Fi initiated a series of activities that Sci Fi officials said were intended to convince government officials to take UFOs seriously. These activities were part of a publicity campaign for “Taken,” a Sci Fi mini-series about alien abduction broadcast in 2002.

Elements of the campaign included a series of online “chats” with UFO “experts”; the commissioning (and publicizing) of a Roper public opinion poll on UFOs; a symposium in Washington, DC, on “interstellar travel and unidentified aerial phenomena”; a symposium in New York on “the reality of the abduction phenomenon”; and a National Press Club briefing in Washington on the formation of a Coalition for Freedom of Information (CFI). The CFI – founded by self-described “investigative journalist” Leslie Kean, who continues to write about UFOs for the Huffington Post – was a Sci Fi-sponsored project of PodestaMattoon, which orchestrated the network’s UFO campaign. My friend Leonard David, reporting for space.com, described Sci Fi’s campaign as “seeking the truth through savvy marketing.”

Sci Fi’s Washington symposium took place on the campus of George Washington University. I attended this event to observe the rhetoric of UFOlogy in action. The university’s vice president for academic affairs said GWU and Sci Fi had a common interest in promoting interdisciplinary scientific research and “dispassionate discussions” about controversial subjects. The panel of seven experts assembled for this UFOlogy symposium included five Ph.Ds, among them physicists Michio Kaku (a science popularizer and ubiquitous media talking head), Stanford University professor Peter Sturrock and UFOlogist/venture capitalist Jacques Vallee. Given the importance of labeling in constructing authority, I should note that while I am referring to this event as a UFOlogy symposium, Sci Fi did not use this term in publicizing the event, and speakers at the event avoided use of the term “UFO,” employing the alternative term “unidentified aerial phenomenon” (UAP). Credentials, expertise and authority were emphasized in speaker introductions, biographies and presentations.

In 2003, the Associated Press reported on a Sci Fi Channel-backed lawsuit to make NASA divulge records of “a UFO that reportedly crash landed and was recovered by government workers” in 1965. “The cable network announced in June,” the story reported, “that it was backing the effort to research the Kecksburg incident in promoting a documentary, ‘Out of the Blue,’ which examined various UFO reports…. Sci Fi…officials said they’re looking for an explanation of what occurred. They’re also looking for viewers. A November 2002 documentary on the suspected 1947 UFO crash in Roswell…was the highest-rated special in the network’s 11-year history…seen by nearly 2.4 million people.”

Back to 2015. My advice to you, dear readers, is to question authority. How many of these “experts” have constructed their authority by using the media to frame themselves as “experts”? Just because John Podesta has worked in the White House over two administrations, does it mean he has inside information on government knowledge of UFOs? And as far as “the truth” goes, most of the “truth” that’s out there is claims dressed up as “facts.” IMHO.

Consider your sources.