What is the value of the human exploration of space?


Credit: the verge.com

With all the media brouhaha about this Saturday’s 50thanniversary of the Apollo 11 – stirred up in large part by NASA’s highly efficient public-affairs operation – it’s worth thinking about why the U.S. sent men to the Moon and why the current administration wants to repeat the feat and then send people on to Mars.

As the current administration is pushing NASA to return people to the Moon by 2024 “by any means necessary,” I wonder – what is the point? The administration has directed NASA to focus its attention on the human exploration of space, which currently consumes close to half of NASA’s $20 billion annual budget. What is the public purpose, the value, of the human exploration of space?

On July 11, the results of a C-SPAN-Ipsos public opinion poll were published, showing that NASA funding is less popular with the public than NASA itself is.  This finding replicates the findings of decades worth of public opinion polls. NASA has done a great job at promoting its “brand,” but public interest has not translated into public support for a larger space program. In June, the results of an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll were published, showing that on a list of nine priorities for the U.S. space program, respondents ranked returning astronauts to the Mars #6, returning astronauts to the Moon #7, and establishing a permanent human presence on other planets #8. In June 2018, the Pew Research Center published the results of a poll asking respondents to rank in order of priority nine goals in space exploration: sending astronauts to Mars ranked #8, and sending astronauts back to the Moon ranked #9. For decades, NASA and successive administrations have offered the similar rationales for human exploration, as re-articulated by Vice President Mike Pence in December 2017, when he said, “America will lead in space once again on all fronts…space is the ‘next great American frontier’ – and it is our duty – and our destiny – to settle that frontier with American leadership, courage, and values.” Does this message resonate with the taxpayers who are financing the human exploration of space? In the current political environment, NASA’s priorities in space exploration do not appear to reflect the public interest.

As a scholar of space history, I have studied how, and why, NASA has worked on garnering public attention to the space program – especially its human exploration activities. This post is based on a chapter I contributed to a NASA history book marking NASA’s 50thanniversary.*

Even before NASA was created, U.S. engagement in space exploration was being shaped by political concerns about public image. U.S. activities in space were intended to be seen an assertion of scientific and technological expertise, political power, and global dominance. And they still are. From its inception, NASA was part of larger national political effort aimed at “winning hearts and minds” in a bifurcated world of free and Communist nations. Today, NASA is competing, and cooperating, with many space-faring nations. But the political impetus behind the space program is still, put simply, “USA, #1.”

Early NASA information policy documents cited the Agency’s statutory responsibility to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.”This policy, on paper and in practice, also aimed to control the flow of information to the public, including the mass media. At the same time, the media were invited in, by design, to help tell the story of U.S. leadership and conquest in space. This is still the intent of NASA’s public affairs operations.

From NASA’s start, there was a tension between the agency’s democratic task of informing the public and its political objective of controlling image and message: making America look great. This is still the case. The role of appointees is to make the President look good, by making NASA, headed by a leader of the President’s choice, look good. Civil servants have the task of fulfilling the Agency’s statutory responsibility to disseminate information on all of its activities. They are also compelled to keep their appointee bosses happy – a tough order on some days.

 In assessing public opinion about, interest in, and knowledge of the space program, NASA and the space community have typically taken an advertising and marketing approach to the task. NASA has repeatedly turned to the advertising and marketing sector for help in “branding” and “selling” the space program. The result has been a string of similar studies and similar findings – including the finding that public knowledge of NASA is a mile wide and an inch deep – and a series of attempts to cultivate favorable public opinion, along with the increased public support that is erroneously assumed to accompany that favorable opinion, by pitching NASA to the public. A C-SPAN-Ipsos public opinion pollconducted this year showed that while many reaspondents said they have been touched by the space program, a much smaller number identify as space enthusiasts. About one in five Americans classify themselves as “very interested” in space exploration, and only about a third believe the benefits are greater than the costs.

For all of its 60 years thus far, NASA has claimed a high level of public interest and a good reputation with “the public.” It is not clear how much of this good feeling among citizens is a product of NASA’s public affairs efforts and how much is due to other social factors – that is, the social and cultural context for the space program. Over the past 25 years, I have observed that when NASA and other members of the space community talk about public interest and understanding and engagement, they are usually talking about their desire to expand public support. Public opinion research and studies of public understanding of science and technology have shown how and explored why public interest does not equate to public understanding and how and why neither interest nor understanding equates to public agreement or support.

Today the range of issues people are thinking about may be different – for example, poll respondents now rank planetary defense and climate change research as high priorities for the space program – but the situation is the same. While many people may view the space program as a salient issue, they typically do not put it at the top of their list of things they need to think about. NASA continues to struggle to make space exploration relevant to people’s lives. In the 21stcentury, people know NASA by its representations – its space-walking heroes and their spaceships, the Hubble Space Telescope, and anthropomorphized rovers on Mars. What is missing in this pastiche of of spectacles is the meaning of NASA for all of its publics.

What people seem to care about is space exploration, in the broadest possible sense. People appear to care as much about the idea of space exploration, the idea of human and robotic presence in space, as they do about the mechanics, the reality, of these things. When asked to place a value on the idea of space exploration, people rate it highly. When asked to put a price tag on the reality of space exploration, a different picture results.

NASA exists in a social reality where special interests – political and economic and business interests – will continue to ensure, for better or worse, the continuation of the civilian space program. At the same time, most citizens arguably do not “get” space exploration in the same ways that special interests in the space community do. NASA and its advocates are framing space as a resource-rich environment to exploit for economic gain, as a money-making enterprise, as a new home for the endangered human species. While this messaging receives wide attention in the mass media, I wonder – does it resonate with taxpayers?

* Linda Billings, “Fifty years of NASA and the public: What NASA? What publics?”, pp. 151-182 in S.J. Dick, Ed., NASA’s First 50 Years: Historical Perspectives(NASA SP-2010-4704), NASA History Division, Washington, D.C., 2010. Available free online at history.nasa.gov.








Space Studies Board weighs in: NASA should build a space-based infrared NEO survey telescope


Credit: azcentral.com

…that is, NEOCam – the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Camera, a dedicated space-based infrared NEO survey telescope. I know of no other mission concept of this sort that is in the works.

NASA selected NEOCam for phase-A (concept) study through a Discovery program competition in 2015. In 2017, NASA approved “extended-phase-A” funding for the project. NASA’s planetary defense program (full disclosure: I am a consultant to this program, and no one asked me to write this blog) wants to advance NEOCAM to phase B – design. Higher-ups at NASA appear unwilling, as yet, to advocate for the extra funding needed in the planetary defense budget to develop NEOCAM. (See below.)

As I’ve reported here before, the planetary defense community has been advocating for a space-based NEO survey telescope that will observe in the infrared for some time (see, for example, the NASA Small Bodies Assessment Group’s findings over the past few years). NASA is funding an “extended-phase-A” study of the NEOCam mission.

Why IR? As NEOCam principal investigator Amy Mainzer explains, asteroids typically reflect less than 10 percent of the sunlight that hits them in visible wavelengths. This visible light reflection is what ground-based observers can detect. The rest of the sunlight that hits an asteroid is emitted in infrared wavelengths – hence, the desirability of an IR NEO survey telescope. (Also, a space-based telescope can observe 24/7, while ground-based telescopes can only observe at night when the sky is clear.)

In 2018, NASA chief scientist Jim Green asked the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to investigate and make recommendations about a space-based infrared NEO telescope’s capabilities. The SSB appointed an ad hoc Committee on Near Earth Object Observations in the Infrared and Visible Wavelengths, to explore the relative advantages and disadvantages of infrared (IR) and visible observations of near Earth objects (NEOs), review and describe the techniques that could be used to obtain NEO sizes from infrared observations and delineate any associated errors in determining NEO sizes, and “evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these techniques and recommend the most valid techniques that give reproducible results with quantifiable errors.”

Over the course of three meetings, the committee was briefed by more than a dozen experts on NEO observations.The committee concluded that a space-based infrared telescope would be “more effective at detecting NEOs than visible wavelength in-space telescopes,” would “provide diameter information that visible wavelength telescopes cannot provide” (as the committee noted, “In addition to detecting NEOs and determining their orbits, it is necessary to estimate their mass to quantify their destructive potential. A NEO’s diameter is the most readily available indicator of its mass”), and would “not cost significantly more than in-space visible wavelength telescopes.”

The committee recommended that if congressionally mandated NEO detection requirements “are to be accomplished in a timely fashion (i.e., approximately 10 years), NASA should fund a dedicated space-based infrared survey telescope. Early detection is important to enable deflection of a dangerous asteroid.”

The committee also recommended that “if NASA develops a space-based infrared near Earth object (NEO) survey telescope, it should also continue to fund both short- and long-term ground-based observations to refine the orbits and physical properties of NEOs to assess the risk they might pose to Earth, and to achieve the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act goals.”

In congressional testimony on June 11, NASA associate administrator for space science Thomas Zurbuchen said, “NASA’s Planetary Defense Program will continue to fund the NEO Observations project and development of a space-based infrared instrument for detecting NEOs with this year’s budget request. Meanwhile, the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) to demonstrate the kinetic impact technique for asteroid deflection will continue to make progress towards its planned 2021 launch.”

For me, the key words here are “with this year’s budget request.” NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request for planetary defense is not sufficient to complete the DART mission and advance NEOCam to development.

On April 29, as reported by Space Policy Online, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine told attendees at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference “that he was asked about NEOCam during a recent Senate Commerce Committee hearing,” and that “he would talk to…Zurbuchen, and the director of SMD’s planetary science division, Lori Glaze, about how to fund it. ‘But know this, we are committed to doing that,’ Bridenstine asserted.”

Problems persist with “Moon 2024”


Credit: the verge.com

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has just delivered yet another report to Congress documenting continuing cost growth and schedule delays in the major systems that NASA is developing to return people to the Moon — by 2024, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine insists.

The title of the new report says it all: “NASA HUMAN SPACE EXPLORATION: Persistent Delays and Cost Growth Reinforce Concerns over Management of Programs.”

Here’s what GAO found in its investigation of cost and schedule for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew capsule, and supporting ground systems: “Due to continued production and testing challenges, [NASA’s]…three related human spaceflight programs have encountered additional launch delays and cost growth. In November 2018, within one year of announcing an up to 19-month delay for the three programs— [SLS], the Orion spacecraft, and supporting ground systems—NASA senior leaders acknowledged the revised date of June 2020 is unlikely. Any issues uncovered during planned integration and testing may push the launch date as late as June 2021. Moreover, while NASA acknowledges about $1 billion in cost growth for the SLS program, it is understated. This is because NASA shifted some planned SLS scope to future missions but did not reduce the program’s cost baseline accordingly. When GAO reduced the baseline to account for the reduced scope, the cost growth is about $1.8 billion.”

And there’s more: “In addition, NASA’s updated cost estimate for the Orion program reflects 5.6 percent cost growth. The estimate is not complete, however, as it assumes a launch date that is 7 months earlier than Orion’s baseline launch date. If the program does not meet the earlier launch date, costs will increase further. Updating baselines to reflect current mission scope and providing complete cost estimates would provide NASA management and Congress with a more transparent assessment of where NASA is having difficulty controlling costs. NASA paid over $200 million in award fees from 2014-2018 related to contractor performance on the SLS stages and Orion spacecraft contracts. But the programs continue to fall behind schedule and overrun costs. Ongoing contract renegotiations with Boeing for the SLS and Lockheed Martin for the Orion program provide NASA an opportunity to reevaluate its strategy to incentivize contractors to obtain better outcomes.”

What did GAO conclude? “NASA’s SLS, Orion, and EGS [ground support] programs NASA “has been unable to achieve agreed-to cost and schedule performance” for SLS, Orion, and ground support systems. “NASA acknowledges that future delays to the June 2020 launch date are likely, but the agency’s approach in estimating cost growth for the SLS and Orion programs is misleading. And it does not provide decision makers, including the Administrator, complete cost data with which to assess whether Congress needs to be notified of a cost increase, pursuant to law. By not using a similar set of assumptions regarding what costs are included in the SLS baseline and updated SLS cost estimates, NASA is underreporting the magnitude of the program’s cost growth. Similarly, NASA is underreporting the Orion program’s cost performance by measuring cost growth to an earlier-than-agreed-to schedule date. As a result, Congress and the public continue to accept further delays to the launch of the first mission without a clear understanding of the costs associated with those delays.”

“Finally, contractor performance to date has not produced desirable program cost and schedule outcomes. Ongoing and planned contract negotiations present an opportunity to restructure the government’s approach to incentives.”

Earlier this year NASA said it wanted to return people to the Moon by 2028. Then the White House directed NASA to do it by 2024. At the same time, it appears that NASA is unable to resolve the cost and schedule problems documented so thoroughly by the GAO.

As I wrote in a March 13 blog post, the administration’s budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent. Since receiving the Moon-2024 directive, NASA administrator Bridenstine has said NASA will need supplemental billions a year to meet the 2024 goal. Where those billions will come from is not clear.

In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS. We still don’t have a firm date for the first launch of the SLS, as far as I know.

Bridenstine told the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in March that he wanted to launch NASA’s so-called Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in June 2020, on a “commercial rocket.” The SLS was intended to be the launch vehicle for EM-1, which would carry the Orion crew capsule – without crew – and a European-built service module into lunar orbit. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.) Weeks later, Bridenstine said the “commercial rocket” option was off the table.

As I follow the current “back to the Moon” saga, the words that keeping popping into my head include “smoke and mirrors” and “shell game.” The aerospace industry, led by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is certainly supportive of this initiative. The industry will make a ton of money on it. But, as far as I can tell, neither congressional support nor public support has materialized for the back-to-the-Moon initiative. So, again, I’ll ask, why? Why do we need to return people to the Moon? And why has neither congressional nor public support materialized?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad we have a space program. But I think the space program we have is headed in the wrong direction. It would be nice to have a broad national dialogue on where we should be going and what we should be doing in space. (Alas, in the current political environment, I don’t see such a thing happening.) I was involved in two limited but useful efforts to collect public comment on this subject – the series of public forums held by the National Commission on Space in 1985-1986, and the series of town meetings held by NASA in 1992. I was not involved in a series of “future forums” held by NASA in 2008. Those forums were invitation-only events – meaning that NASA hand-picked attendees. And it’s not at all clear whether and how NASA, Congress, or the White House has incorporated any of this public feedback into its decision-making processes.

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of “Moon 2024.”

Will space science have to pay for Moon 2024?


Credit: solarsystem.nasa.gov

At Tuesday ’s hearing of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics, intended to review NASA’s science mission, subcommittee members and witnesses alike expressed concerns about NASA’s push to land people back on the Moon by 2024. (To reiterate, I don’t think it’s a good idea, and I also don’t think it’s do-able.)

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (for whom I have great respect), said in her opening statement:

“The one-year [fiscal year 2020 NASA] budget amendment [proposed] in May would give the [NASA] Administrator carte blanche authority to move funds among NASA’s accounts from this year forward, if he determines that ‘the transfers are necessary in support of establishment of a U.S. strategic presence on the Moon.’ Why? Because the Administration, it seems, may not request in the coming years what NASA actually needs” for Moon 2024…. This isn’t a new tactic. The George W. Bush Administration, which initiated the last Moon program” – the so-called Vision for Space Exploration, a back-to-the-Moon-and-on-to-Mars proposal – “tried the same approach. According to a 2006 National Academies report, the Bush Administration indicated its intention to cut significantly from Science to pay for its Moon program.”

Cuts were made, and yet the Vision did not materialize. (For more details, see my April 2 blog post.)

NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen said in his written statement: “There is intense interest in what we can discover at the Moon…. The Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP), established within SMD, advances an integrated, innovative and sustainable strategy for exploration. LDEP is rooted not only in fostering improved collaboration across the Agency, but on truly leveraging interagency, international, and commercial partnerships to enable the payloads and services that will address the Nation’s lunar exploration, science and technology demonstration goals. The synergy between robotic and human exploration assets enables valuable opportunities for science that cut across our science disciplines, allowing us to take advantage of the Moon both as a destination and as a unique vantage point to discover the secrets of the universe, and through it protect and improve life on Earth.”

He also said: “In 2020, NASA will commence studies and development of a Mars Sample Return mission – the highest-priority strategic mission identified by the scientific community in the most recent planetary science decadal survey and endorsed in the 2018 midterm assessment – that would allow for the return of the Mars 2020 rover samples. Leveraging commercial and international partnerships, such as with the European Space Agency, this mission may launch as early as 2026. In parallel, the cutting-edge Europa Clipper, a strategic mission to fly by Jupiter’s moon, will be our first step in exploring ocean worlds and their potential habitability for extraterrestrial life.”

Mars sample return and missions to Europa will be multi-billion-dollar initiatives. If NASA administrator Bridenstine were to move money from science to Moon 2024, IMHO these missions would not be able to proceed in a timely fashion (if at all). (Mars sample return has been a top priority in the planetary science community since the late 1970s. It’s continued to be unaffordable. More on this in a later post.)

NASA also has two big-ticket astrophysics missions in the works: the Wide Field Infrared Telescope (WFIRST), which NASA estimates will cost $3.2 billion and is planned for launch in 2025; and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The Trump administration did not include any funding for WFIRST in its fiscal year 2019 and 2020 budget requests. Congress appropriated funding for 2019 ($312 million). I expect that Congress will do the same for 2020. As Space News reported, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Congress in March that WFIRST should be cancelled in order to keep JWST on track.

As to JWST, the Government Accountability Office reported in May: “Prior to being approved for development, cost estimates for JWST ranged from $1 billion to $3.5 billion, with expected launch dates ranging from 2007 to 2011. Before 2011, early technical and management challenges, contractor performance issues, low levels of cost reserves, and poorly phased funding levels caused JWST to delay work after confirmation, which contributed to significant cost and schedule overruns, including launch delays. Following an independent review, Congress placed an $8 billion cap on the formulation and development costs for the project in November 2011. NASA rebaselined JWST with a life-cycle cost estimate of $8.835 billion that included additional money for operations and a planned launch in October 2018. Between September 2017 and June 2018, the project’s planned launch date was delayed three times, culminating in another independent review and a replan with a new project cost estimate of $9.663 billion and a new launch date of March 2021.”

And then there’s the Space Launch System (SLS)/Orion project, the key element of NASA’s plan to return people to the Moon. As I wrote here on March 13, “The budget request for NASA in 2020 proposes cutting SLS funding (now about $2 billion a year) by 17 percent. In 2014, the cost estimate for SLS was $9.7 billion, with first launch proposed for 2018. By 2018, NASA had spent about $11.9 billion on SLS…. (As of 2017, the cost estimate for Orion was $6.6 billion.)”

Early this year NASA said it was planning to return people to the Moon by 2028. Then Vice President Pence told NASA that the president wanted NASA to put people back on the Moon by 2024.

(Are you scratching your head yet? I am….)

Now, back to the hearing on space science….

Princeton University astrophysicist David Spergel, former chair of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, said in his written testimony: “Neither the planetary science decadal survey nor its more recent mid-decadal report have identified a major investment in lunar science as one of the highest priorities of the planetary science community.”

Mark Sykes, CEO and director of the Planetary Science Institute, said in his testimony: “The Administration’s proposed…budget amendment to give the Administration authority to restructure the agency as necessary in support of establishment of a US strategic presence on the Moon would pose, if implemented, a grave danger to the future of all American space science and our nation’s space program in general…. Space science could be radically reduced or expunged. All of this would occur without any Congressional oversight. It does not matter who is the Administrator, the party in power, or the President today or tomorrow. This cannot be allowed under any circumstances.”

More from Sykes: “The plan under the Space Exploration Initiative [SEI – proposed by George H.W. Bush in 1989] for the development of astronomy on the Moon in concert with expanding human activity has been largely superseded over the past 30 years by the successful development of space-based observatories.” (I would add that neither the GHW Bush administration nor Congress provided funding for the SEI.)

During the George W. Bush administration, former Apollo astronaut and former senator Harrison Schmitt, then head of the NASA Advisory Council, was given the go-ahead by NASA to organize a February 2007 “back to the Moon” workshop in Tempe, Arizona, which, according to NASA, produced 35 recommendations relating to exploration science, lunar science, lunar-based science, and “other research enabled by the emerging exploration architecture for returning humans to the Moon by 2020.” I attended this workshop as a consultant to NASA’s Planetary Protection Office. I came away from the workshop with the impression that most lunar scientists thought the research they would like to do on the Moon could be conducted robotically, but if NASA were to put people on the Moon, they could come up with some work for them to do.

I don’t think returning humans to the Moon by 2024 is possible. The Apollo program made remarkable achievements on a short timeline – at a time when our nation was in a budget surplus and the global political environment drove the U.S. government into an effort to beat the Soviet Union to the Moon. The point was not to establish a presence on the Moon. The point was to establish technological dominance.

Times have changed. The global political environment, and the global aerospace enterprise, is very different in 2019 than it was in the 1960s. Yes, other nations are talking about sending people to the Moon. Perhaps the only sensible, and perhaps somewhat affordable, way to establish a human presence on the Moon would be to build a multinational coalition to do it, as was done to build, staff, and maintain the International Space Station (ISS).

It was the Reagan administration that initiated the building of an international partnership to build a space station. It was the Clinton administration that brought Russia into the ISS partnership. (Russia launched the first ISS module, Zarya, into Earth orbit.)

Could the U.S., Russia, China, India, and other spacefaring nations with an interest in the Moon work together on a lunar base?

What do you think?

Who’s in charge of our future?


Credit: inverse.com

Concluding today is Amazon re:MARS, an invitation-only four-day conference organized by Amazon. The company has described the conference as “a new global AI [artificial intelligence] event on machine learning, automation, robotics, and space, to learn why and how to apply the latest AI advances in your business and work.”

The cost of admission was $1,999. The cost of three nights at the conference hotel, the NV Aria Resort & Casino, was $857.16. The conference featured two receptions plus a “re:MARS party” last night.

Amazon told invitees that they should attend because “re:MARS brings together innovative minds with diverse skill sets who share an inventors spirit, a builders mentality, and a desire to use AI to initiate change and shape the future. The event is designed for business leaders and technical builders (including developers, engineers, data scientists, ML experts, and roboticists) who translate customer problems into real-world technology solutions using AI. We want you to learn, have fun, foster new relationships, and find unexpected inspiration.”

Amazon actually provided invitees with “justification letters” intended to convince their bosses to let them attend on the company tab. (Wow.) From these letters: “At re:MARS, I’ll hear the latest AI trends, learn how Amazon and other leading companies use AI to innovate, see the latest invention and business solutions for AI, and connect with other leaders.”

“Gold” sponsors of the conference included Accenture and Intel. “Featured speakers” at the conference included (of course) Jeff Bezos and several other Amazon executives – plus Robert Downey Jr. (what?).

To my eye, perusing its agenda, this conference appeared to be designed in large part as an opportunity to promote Amazon products and services (and perhaps another opportunity for Bezos to air his personal visions for the future of humanity).

(Who put him in charge of our future? I don’t like it.)

Apparently this conference was open to the media (or was it just invited media? I don’t know). VentureBeat reported today that Bezos told conference attendees his aerospace company, Blue Origins, is “going to the moon to ‘save the Earth.’ The idea is that moving more of humanity into space could be part of a long-term strategy to protect the Earth…. ‘To do big things in space’ we need to use in-space resources, and so the moon is great. The reason we go to space, in my view, is to save the Earth. [If] we are going to continue to grow this civilization, we need the moon’,” he said.

I find this rationale specious at best.

I’ve just published a paper in the journal Futures arguing that colonizing other planets is a bad idea. Here’s my abstract: “Should humans seek to colonize outer space? I say no. I have worked in the space community for 35 years with a variety of programs and projects ranging from science to human space flight. My view as a social scientist is that humans are not sufficiently advanced, technologically and socially, to be establishing colonies on Mars, or any other place in space. Except for the threads of Russian cosmism, the ideology of space colonization and exploitation is largely Western, and Christian, as noted above. It appears to be some interpretation of Christian dominion, or dominionist, theology that drives colonization advocates to declare that humans are destined to fill the universe, that humans “must” colonize Mars, that outer space resources are there for the taking. The ideology of space exploration is in need of rejuvenation. The author advocates a vision of a human future in space in which humanity finds its way to a collective peaceful existence on Spaceship Earth, a way to work together to preserve life here and to look for life out there. Perhaps at some point in the distant future, humans might be ready –technologically and socially – to live together peacefully on other planets. But we are not there yet.”

As to VentureBeat, it is supported by corporate and individual investors or sponsors. As of July 2014, Amazon was not an investor. I don’t know about today, as I can’t find any more up-to-date information via Google.

Other media outlets reporting on the conference included GeekWire and CNBC.

It disturbs me that the mass media so readily report on the space “visions” of zealots like Bezos without any critical thinking about their feasibility, utility, or validity. A small but growing community of scholars and analysts are exploring the ethics of colonizing other planetary bodies. The issue of Futures that contains my recent paper is a dedicated issue on the topic of human colonization of other worlds, presenting a wide range of views on the subject, from philosophers, ethicists, natural scientists and social scientists. Alas, the papers are behind a paywall, but at least you can read the abstracts for free to get a flavor of a thoughtful discourse on this subject that is vastly underrepresented in the media.

Planetary defense: the hits keep coming


Catalina Sky Survey. Credit: uanews.arizona.edu

Small asteroids hit Earth’s atmosphere and explode on a regular basis – without any harm to people or property. Sometimes people see them, most times not. Various sensors systems, ranging from the network of microbarometers operated by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (which detect infrasound waves), lightning sensors on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES 16 and 17 weather satellites, the National Weather Service’s Next Generation Weather Radar (NEXRAD) system.

Planning for planetary defense against large asteroid impacts — events that could cause damage to people and property — requires, first and foremost, finding, tracking, and characterizing near-Earth objects (NEOs)  –(mostly) asteroids and (some) comets that are predicted to pass within about 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of Earth on their orbits around the Sun. An expanding global network of ground-based observers is doing this work. The International Asteroid Warning Network (http://www.iawn.net), now five years old, is improving communication and coordination among these observers.

I received an in-depth update on this enterprise by attending the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference (PDC), which convened in College Park, Maryland, on April 29. These biennial, week-long PDCs are an opportunity for the global community of experts involved in NEO science and planning for planetary defense to come together and report on their work. This was my third PDC. (Full disclosure: I am a consultant to NASA’s planetary defense program on communication issues. No one asked me to write this blog post.) This post provides a brief glimpse of the proceedings.

With a bigger annual budget – currently around $150 million – and the world’s first planetary defense mission – the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) – in development (for launch in 2021), NASA’s planetary defense program is making progress. According to Kelly Fast, manager of NASA’s NEO observations program (a key element of the planetary defense program), the ongoing NEO survey hit the 20,000 mark on April 26. That is, observers (more than 90 percent funded by NASA) have found more than 20,000 NEOs thus far. NEO discoveries reached 15,000 in October 2016, a milestone marking a 50 percent increase in discoveries since 2013, when the 10,000 threshold was reached. In 2012 the rate of NEO discovery was about half of what it is today. (As of June 2, discoveries totaled 20,224).

Two space agencies now have planetary defense officers: Lindley Johnson at NASA, and Ruediger Jehn at the European Space Agency (ESA). Planetary defense could involve launching a mission to deflect an asteroid off an impact course with Earth (the DART mission will demonstrate this technique on a non-hazardous asteroid), or, if deflection is not an option, planning for impact mitigation. No known NEO is predicted to be on an impact course with Earth for the next 100 years. Observers have found, and are tracking, most of the big ones – 1 kilometer in size or larger – objects that might cause global damage if they were to impact Earth (either by exploding in the atmosphere or hitting land or sea).

Though the network of NEO observation sites has been growing in recent years and while NEO observing technologies and techniques are improving, ground-based observations can only be conducted at night when skies are clear. These limitations mean that using current assets, says NASA’s Lindley Johnson, it would take 30 years to meet the congressionally mandated goal of finding, tracking, and characterizing 90 percent of 140-meter and larger NEOs (Congress wanted this goal met by 2030).

Given these limitations, the planetary defense community has been advocating for a space-based NEO survey telescope that will observe in the infrared (IR). NASA’s planetary defense program is funding an “extended-phase-A” study of the proposed NEO Camera (or NEOCam) mission – a space-based, dedicated NEO survey telescope. The primary challenge is to refine key technology for the mission — and then, if all goes well, advance to “phase B” — mission definition.

As NEOCam principal investigator Amy Mainzer explains, asteroids typically reflect less than 10 percent of the sunlight that hits them in visible wavelengths. This visible light reflection is what ground-based observers can detect. The rest of the sunlight that hits an asteroid is emitted in infrared (IR wavelengths – hence, the desirability of an IR NEO survey telescope.

Meanwhile, the NASA-funded Catalina Sky Survey and the Pan-STARRS project are the two most productive NEO search initiatives. A newer asset, funded by NASA in 2013, is the Asteroid Terrestrial Impact Last Alert System (ATLAS), which aims to provide one day’s warning for an impact of an asteroid that would release 30 kilotons of energy, one week for a 5-megaton impact event, and three weeks for a 100-megaton impact event. The privately funded Las Cumbres Observatory, a global network of robotically operated telescopes, devotes some of its observing time to NEO searching.

The DART mission, being the first of its kind, presents numerous technical challenges. For instance, according to Angela Stickle, a member of the DART team at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which is building the spacecraft, “initial impactor parameters” – such as impactor mass and speed – “are well known.” However, “physical properties of the target are not well known.” Factors that could affect the kinetic impact demonstration include the porosity, strength, and crack spacing of the asteroid target.

Finally, I’d like to say a few words about a first-time event for a PDC – a panel of journalists (organized by yours truly) who were invited to PDC 2019 to tell the experts what they need to know about planetary defense and how and when they need to know it.

Journalists on the panel were science reporter Dan Vergano with Buzzfeed News, science reporter Sarah Kaplan with the Washington Post, and broadcast meteorologist Melissa Nord of CBS Channel 9 TV in Washington, D.C. (Broadcast meteorologists routinely report on natural phenomena such as asteroid close approaches and meteor showers.)

Addressing ongoing concerns among some scientists about erroneous reporting, Kaplan told attendees, “You need to know how hard we work to get it right.” She said she would much rather be corrected during interviews than have to correct a story after publication. Kaplan said people in the planetary defense community use too much technical jargon in communications with journalists. Don’t “dumb it down” for us, she said. Instead, “translate” – that is, take the time to explain what you are telling us about.

All three panelists said the planetary defense community needs to put more thought into graphics provided to journalists and the public. Graphics that are useful and meaningful to experts are not necessarily useful, meaningful, or comprehensible to others. All three also expressed frustration at having to go through public affairs offices in order to make contact with experts. They prefer communicating directly with sources. With deadlines always looming, having to wait for hours to get in contact with an expert can mean that a story is published or aired without comment from the appropriate person. “It’s tremendously frustrating,” Vergano said; “the PR folks often get in the way.”

Vergano urged experts not to “fudge” on what they do not know for sure. We can live with uncertainty, he said. And we need patience from our sources, he added.  He also advised experts to “get over” their frustrations with headlines and stories that might appear misleading or sensationalized to them. Journalists are not going to use the same scientific language that the experts use, he said.

Nord, who serves a local audience but in a large metropolitan area with an educated population, suggested that NASA’s PDCO could better assist broadcast meteorologists working in smaller towns by providing them a short video on NEOs, close approaches, and planetary defense. (Good idea.)

That’s all for now.

More on “technosignatures” (a.k.a. SETI)


Credit: YouTube

I’m just now reading the November 2018 report on the technosignatures workshop hosted by NASA in Houston, Texas, in September 2018. (I attended much of this workshop via livestreaming.) “Technosignatures” is the label that advocates for the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) have adopted in recent years to replace “SETI” – part of the community’s ongoing effort to further legitimize their work as “science” (and because it’s a long word, I’m going to shorten it to TSs here.) As I’ve said before, the search for TSs is still SETI.

SETI advocate Adam Frank said at the workshop that work going on today is “not your grandmother’s SETI” – that is, listening for radio signals from intelligent extraterrestrial life. SETI today involves consideration of radio, optical/near-infrared laser, atmospheric, structural and planet-scale signals (or signatures).

Nonetheless, SETI today continues to proceed on a pile of assumptions. (See below for a recap.)

Now-retired Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chaired the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee from January 3, 2013 to January 3, 2019, is a self-described SETI fan. In 2017, Smith advised NASA that it should be funding the search for TSs and said his committee would be authorizing $10 million for NASA TS research in 2018-2019 (fiscal year 2019). Responding to Smith’s direction, NASA hosted the September workshop, organized by the scientific community, to gather information on the state of the art of TS search.

I found the workshop report to be, first, a strongly worded advocacy document for federal funding of TS research, and, second, a review of the state of the art in TS research.

(Note: While the funding was authorized, NASA’s fiscal year 2019 appropriations did not include the $10 million for TS research.)

Michael New, deputy associate administrator for research in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said at the workshop that it was taking place because “there’s language in our authorization bill that says we should be interested” in TSs. Over the past 20 years, he noted, the astrobiology community has been developing a framework for identifying and exploring for biosignatures. TSs are a subset of this larger framework, he said. New also noted that NASA’s current call for exobiology research proposals includes TS research, excluding searches for radio signals.

(Note: New has advised me that NASA has modified language in its exobiology and astrophysics data analysis program calls for proposals to clarify the types of TS proposals these research and analysis programs are willing to consider. Again, the additional $10 million authorized for TS research was not appropriated, so proposals for TS research must compete with other proposals for funding.)

At NASA headquarters, the view as far as I understand it is that TS research is more within the purview of astrophysics than it is within astrobiology. Nonetheless, the workshop report – edited by SETI scientist Jason Wright and exoplanet researcher Dawn Gelino – states: “Technosignatures are analogous to biosignatures in that they are a detectable sign of extant or extinct life…. [W]hile some consider technosignatures to be a subset of biosignatures and others think of them as being complementary to biosignatures, either way searches for technosignatures are logically continuous with the search for biosignatures as part of astrobiology.”

In an introduction to the workshop report, Jason Wright wrote:

“As with biosignatures, one must proceed by hypothesizing a class of detectable technosignatures, motivated by life on Earth, and then designing a search for that technosignature considering both its detectability and its uniqueness. The search for technosignatures is thus broad, encompassing much of astronomy. Unlike biosignatures, many proposed technosignatures are self-luminous or involve the manipulation of energy from bright natural sources. Also, since technological life might spread through the galaxy, its technosignatures might be found far in both space and time from its point of abiogenesis. Compared to biosignatures, technosignatures might therefore be more ubiquitous, more obvious, more unambiguous, and detectable at much greater (even extragalactic) distances.”

I question this statement. Wright says, “many proposed technosignatures are self-luminous or involve the manipulation of energy from bright natural sources.” IMHO, it would be more accurate to say that “we believe that many of the technosignatures we propose to look for would be self-luminous or involve the manipulation of bright natural sources.” I also question the claim that “compared to biosignatures, technosignatures might…be more ubiquitous” etc. etc. This claim is speculative – based largely on assumptions, not knowledge.

The workshop report speculates about interstellar visitors to our solar system or past, extinct, technological cultures on Earth – speculations that I find far-fetched. “Because our exploration of the solar system remains so incomplete…it remains a potential search space for technosignatures. Most obvious is the investigation of hypothetical interstellar probes…. Because the geological, paleontological, and archaeological records on Earth are so incomplete, it is even possible that the Earth itself hosts such artifacts…. If technosignatures were discovered in the solar system, it would be worth considering whether their origin might not be interstellar. Specifically, since the Earth is home to the only known species capable of interstellar communication and planetary travel (although both technologies remain in their early development), the Earth remains the only known planet fecund enough to promote technological life, and so it or an early, habitable Mars or Venus could even be the origin  of such technology…. [P]revious episodes of widespread, planet-altering technology on the Earth by putative, now-extinct species (that existed long before humans did) might be identified through paleoclimate investigations using isotopic proxies, land-use analysis, transuranic elements (or fission byproducts), or by searching for artifacts in the geologic record..”


The report also suggests that the Library of Congress Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology program could provide an opportunity to fund a scholar who wants to study SETI. This program, intended to foster “research at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic and societal implications,” could “overlap into technosignatures…. [R]esearch and events produced do not necessarily filter deeply into the science community. There may be ways to amplify the extent and impact of this program for both biosignatures and technosignatures.”

I’m quite familiar with this program and all of its chairs, and I doubt this will happen. (Just FYI, I will be moderating a free public program at the University of Washington on June 25 featuring three Blumberg chairs who will discuss their work at the Library of Congress.)

As to the “social dimensions and implications” of TS research, the report notes that “a recent significant public consultationprocess was undertaken by NASA in collaboration with researchers from Arizona State University’sConsortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes.” This public consultation project was conducted in connection with a then-high-priority project at NASA, the Asteroid Initiative. The report suggests that NASA could fund a similar public consultation project about SETI, “which truly takes into account current public interests and concerns (instead of presuming to already know what those are).”

Since SETI is not a priority for NASA, this is not going to happen, either.

To be clear, considering the vastness of the universe and what we’ve learned about its evolution and physical and chemical composition, I have no trouble accepting the idea that life could exist, or could have existed, elsewhere. But for me, that’s the end of acceptable assumptions about SETI. No matter how rhetorically or technologically sophisticated the SETI community has become, the work of this community still depends on a pile of assumptions that I deem shaky – that intelligence will evolve in life on other planets, that we know what intelligence is and will recognize it when we encounter it, that extraterrestrial intelligence will be like human intelligence, that human intelligence is the pinnacle of the evolution of intelligence on Earth…. The TS workshop report addresses the limits of various approaches to searching for TSs. Again, considering the vastness of the universe, these limits are, and always have been, a weak point in the rationale for SETI. The chances of finding and verifying a signature are extremely slim. For years, some SETI advocates have been claiming that detection of a signal is imminent. I doubt it.