Remember the ozone hole?



Did you know that this year, the Antarctic ozone hole – a phenomenon first identified in 1985 – was the smallest it’s been since 1988?

I missed this bit of science news when it was issued by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on November 2.

As you’ll recall, researchers determined that the cause of ozone depletion over Antarctica was the release of chloroflurocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone-depleting chemicals into the atmosphere. We need that ozone: it protects life on Earth from damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Studies have shown that in the Antarctic, the amount of [UV radiation] measured at the surface can double during the annual ozone hole.”

Here’s the good news/bad news from NASA and NOAA:

“Although warmer-than-average stratospheric weather conditions have reduced ozone depletion during the past two years, the current ozone hole area is still large because levels of ozone-depleting substances like chlorine and bromine remain high enough to produce significant ozone loss. Scientists said the smaller ozone hole extent in 2016 and 2017 is due to natural variability and not a signal of rapid healing…. Scientists expect the Antarctic ozone hole to recover back to 1980 levels around 2070.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the international treaty known as the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, an agreement that has led to an abatement of atmospheric ozone depletion. (As yet, I have heard no rumors that the United States intends to abrogate this treaty.) In 1995, the United Nations declared September 16 World Ozone Day (I missed that holiday…).

How did I come around to collecting a few facts about atmospheric ozone right now? Well, a scientist friend of mine asked me a few questions about geoengineering, prompted by a November 8 House hearing on the subject, and, somehow, poking around for information on geoengineering led me to poke around for information on ozone depletion….

The purpose of the hearing was to review the status of geoengineering research in the United States. Witnesses were Phil Rasch, chief scientist for climate science at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons labs); Joseph Majkut, director of climate policy at the Niskanen Center (a Washington, D.C.-based libertarian think tank), Douglas MacMartin, a senior research associate at Cornell University; and Kelly Wanser, director of the Marine Cloud Brightening Project at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean.

Geoengineering technology options discussed at the hearing were carbon dioxide removal (CDR) and solar radiation management, or SRM – also known as “sunlight reduction methods” (“marine cloud brightening” is one method of SRM).

Witnesses were appropriately cautious in their statements for the hearing, acknowledging the potential promise of geoengineering techniques as relatively short-term options for mitigating climate change while recognizing the need to continue working on longer-term options to slow global warming. As far as the state of the art of geoengineering, it’s clear that none of the methods discussed at the hearing are ready for prime time. All witnesses recommended more federal funding for research into these techniques.

In his written testimony, Rasch said,  “Research on geoengineering strategies is still in its infancy, but suggests they may represent a promising complement to other responses to climate change…. [They] might help ‘buy time’ for other mitigation and adaptation measures to be put in place. However, it isn’t yet clear whether geoengineering should be part of solution strategies to address observed and anticipated changes in the climate system—we simply do not yet know enough about the potential benefits or risks that might be associated with large-scale deployment of geoengineering technologies…. Even if they are determined to be viable, geoengineering strategies won’t be a magic bullet that eliminates the need for emissions reductions or adaptation measures. While geoengineering technologies could be effective at offsetting some of the effects of climate change, they will not compensate for all of them, and may introduce their own problems.”

(Well said.)

Majkut agreed. Geoengineering technologies, he said, “could be used to prevent some degree of global warming and its attendant effects over short timescales, but there are major scientific questions about the trade-offs associated with using them.”

MacMartin agreed. He stated up front that “reducing greenhouse gas emissions remains the most important component of a strategy to respond to climate change…. Geoengineering…could be an additional and valuable part of an integrated strategy for managing climate change [but it] cannot be a substitute for cutting emissions… Counteracting rising greenhouse gas concentrations would require continually increasing the amount of geoengineering, leading to increased side effects and rapid warming if deployment were ever interrupted.”

Wanser suggested that a federal geoengineering research program “may require $5-10m a year to enable early technology development and field work.”

(I did not observe the hearing, so I can’t comment on Q&A with members.)

I’ve been listening to scientists and engineers talk about geoengineering for more than 30 years. (I’ve also listened to a lot of talk in the aerospace community about the prospect of geoengineering – in this case called “terraforming” – the climate of Mars to make it suitable for human habitation. I think this idea is nuts, not to mention perhaps immoral.) I don’t expect so see a larger federal research effort in geoengineering to develop in the foreseeable future, especially in the current political environment, with an administration that’s refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change.

Geoengineering is technological intervention to change a planet’s climate. We’ve already geoengineered Earth’s climate, by the profligate burning of fossil fuels. I’d say we need to focus on “reverse geoengineering”….


What’s the National Space Council for?



Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz, the current Blumberg Chair in Astrobiology at the Kluge Center of the Library of Congress, has beat me to the punch with her commentary for Scientific American on the public spectacle that was the first meeting of the National Space Council (NSC), which took place October 5.

It was a prototypical dog-and-pony show (see photo) – “an elaborate display or presentation, especially to promote something,” by dictionary definition. What was this event promoting? Deregulation and other government actions to boost profits for the aerospace industry.

NASA televised and webcast the meeting. (I watched the webcast.) The event actually had a title (!!): “Leading the Next Frontier: An Event with the National Space Council.” It was staged – and I mean “staged” – in front of the space shuttle Discovery (and near the SR-71 spy plane) at the National Air and Space Museum’s cavernous Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.

Vice President Mike Pence chairs the NSC, and he served as the master of ceremonies for this event. Here are some samples of Pence’s scripted, flag-waving rhetoric (with my own comments):

  • Discovery is “a national treasure.” (See my chapter in AIAA’s 2013 book, Space Shuttle Legacy: How We Did It/What we Learned. I wrote about “the shuttle as a cultural i”)
  • “We will once again astonish the world…as we boldly go…”
  • “America will lead in space once again.” (The U.S. spends more on space than all other space-faring nations put together.)
  • “America seems to have lost our edge in space.” (A refrain we’ve heard since at least the 1980s – when I entered the space community.)
  • We need “a coherent policy, a coherent vision.” (Another refrain we’ve heard at least since the ‘80s…)
  • Since Apollo, the U.S. space program has “suffered from apathy and neglect.” (Really? NASA’s budget is around $18 billion a year. This number equates to apathy and neglect?)
  • We “will never again let America fall behind in the race for space.” (Why is it a race? Who’s running in this race? And toward what ends?)
  • “We will restore our proud legacy of leadership.” (Gone are the days when the U.S. can expect to be Number One, Boss of the World. Leadership these days requires dialogue, partnership, cooperation.)
  • “We will return American astronauts to the Moon” and then “to Mars and beyond.” (George H.W. Bush made this claim, couldn’t deliver. Ditto for George W. Bush. The Obama administration set its eyes on sending astronauts to an asteroid – who knows why – and under Obama, NASA beat the drum for “humans to Mars.”
  • “We must be as dominant in space as we are on Earth.” (Why?)
  • “Renew the American spirit itself.” (Empty words.)
  • According to the president, “it is America’ s destiny to be the leader of nations.” (Destiny is a religious concept. And the goal of being “the leader,” rather than “a leader,” is not viable in the current global environment. It hasn’t been for some time.)

Walkowicz comments, “Listening to Pence’s address echo across the hanger of space luminaries, the Discovery space shuttle peeking over his shoulder, I couldn’t help but find his narrative surreal. After all, some 250 miles over his head, Americans were nonchalantly plunging in orbit around our planet, tethered to the International Space Station as they busily engaged in the work of living in space.”

As Marcia Smith noted on Space Policy Online, the day before the event the Wall St. Journal published an op-ed by Pence stating that the president’s intent is to send people to the Moon and then on to Mars. Republican. “How that and other goals will be achieved,” Smith noted, “is not addressed other than to say that the Space Council ‘will look beyond the halls of government for insight and expertise’ and create a Users’ Advisory Group ‘partly composed of leaders from America’s burgeoning commercial space industry’.” Whatever that means….

At the NSC extravaganza, Cabinet secretaries and corporate executives were trotted out to play their parts in the spectacle:

From government: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Defense James Mattis; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross; Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao; Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke; Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney; National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster; Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats; Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Deputy Chief Technology Officer of the United States Michael Kratsios; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Paul J. Selva.

From industry: Marillyn Hewson, president and CEO, Lockheed Martin; Dennis Muilenburg, president and CEO, Boeing; Dave Thompson, president and CEO, Orbital ATK (recently acquired by Northrop Grumman); Gwynne Shotwell, president and COO, SpaceX; Bob Smith, CEO, Blue Origin; and Fatih Ozmen, CEO, Sierra Nevada Corporation.

Here is how these companies ranked on a list of top 100 government contractors for fiscal year 2016, according to Aeroweb:

Lockheed Martin: $43.3 billion (#1) – in 2016, net sales=$47.2 billion, net earnings= $3.8 billion

Boeing: $26.4 billion (#2) – in 2016, revenues=$94.6 billion, net earnings=$4.9 billion

Orbital ATK: $2.3 billion (#22) – in 2016, revenues=$4.5 billion, earnings=$292.2 million

(Northrup Grumman: $12 billion (#5))

SpaceX: $1 billion (#52) – SpaceX is not publicly traded, so information on revenues and profits is not publicly available. See this posting on the Motley Fool.

Sierra Nevada: $1.2 billion (#44) – Sierra Nevada is solely owned by Fatih Ozman and his wife Eren Ozman. Information on revenues and profits is not publicly available.

Blue Origin (not on the list, privately held)

As I listened to these people reading their parts in this tightly scripted production, I kept thinking, Don’t they have better things to do?

The NSC meeting was a public spectacle. I’ll quote from my chapter (Chapter 7, p. 151) in the proceedings of NASA’s 50th anniversary history symposium:

“In his famous essay, “Society of the Spectacle,” published in 1967 at the peak of U.S. space frenzy, French critic Guy Debord (1931-1994) argued that in contemporary industrialized, commercialized society, image had supplanted reality as our social reality. He observed:

‘In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation…. Spectacle is not a collection of images but a social relation among people, mediated by images…. The spectacle presents itself as something enormously positive, indisputable and inaccessible…. The attitude which it demands in principle is passive acceptance which in fact is already obtained by…its monopoly of appearance…. The language of the spectacle consists of signs of the ruling production…. As information or propaganda, as advertisement or…entertainment, the spectacle [is] the omnipresent affirmation of the choice already made in production and its corollary consumption….

In today’s ever-more-mass-media-saturated cultural environment, the society of the spectacle continues to thrive. Thanks to increasing numbers and varieties of media outlets and mass communication technologies and techniques, the U.S. space program is as much of a spectacle as it ever was, arguably even more so. Witness the NSC meeting.

Here are a few more quotes from the NSC meeting:

  • Marillyn Hewson: “Nothing better represents America’s optimism about the future than space.”
  • Dennis Muilenberg: “We are a part of the $80 billion a year favorable trade balance” that the U.S. aerospace industry accounts for.”
    • We support “comprehensive tax reform.”
    • “We must commit to an uninterrupted human presence in Earth orbit.”
  • Dave Thompson: “We should be bold in our aspirations.”
  • Gwynne Shotwell: We need “meaningful regulatory reforms…must remove bureaucratic practices” that slow down industry…“regulation written decades ago must be updated” if we want a strong U.S. space launch industry.
  • Bob Smith, Blue Origin: Our vision is “to enable a future in which millions of people are living and working in space.”

Pence asked his panel of experts, has the U.S. fallen behind in space? “How quickly can we get back in the forefront?” Hewson said “it is an imperative” to lead,” and “we have to vigilant” about maintaining leadership. Thompson said we can do it in five years.

Tillerson asked if international law posed “obstacles you are encountering.” Shotwell said not at the moment, “but these things are coming.” Mulvaney asked where the companies “need help on de-regulation.” Pence said, “Let’s work on streamlining regulations, removing bureaucratic hurdles” before the NSC’s next meeting.

We’re right back to the Reagan era of the 1980s – when I entered the aerospace community: deregulation, “commercial” development, deregulation, corporate tax breaks, deregulation. And so much tired, empty rhetoric. It’s discouraging. But I’ll keep paying attention.



Wise, and sobering, words on space policy



I haven’t been blogging much about space issues over the past few months. Current directions in civilian space exploration are disturbing. I’m referring primarily to the drive for sending people to the Moon and Mars and the concurrent drive to let private companies do whatever they want in space with little to no accountability.

We don’t have the money to send people to the Moon and Mars. I doubt that Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have the money (no matter what they say). I don’t think it will happen any time soon. But the rhetoric of space conquest and exploitation is relentless, amplified by constant drum-beating in the mass media.

Today I have something worth blogging about – an excellent article that my friend Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese published in the October 12 issue of Nature. Joan is one of the most astute, well-informed, and nonpartisan space policy analysts around today.

Her commentary in Nature, “Build on the Outer Space Treaty,” is right on the mark. With space libertarians crawling out of the woodwork to tout their agenda of “less regulation,” “streamlined regulation,” “minimal regulation,” “permissionless innovation,” and so on, it’s refreshing to hear from a rational actor, with no financial interest in the advancement of the libertarian agenda of space colonization and exploitation.

“A lot has changed” since the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was ratified in 1967, as Joan notes.

Indeed. Fifty years have passed. Think about what has occurred during that time.

And then think about the current environment for space law and policy.

I agree with Joan that, “Fifty years on, the Outer Space Treaty [is] still appropriate. But interpretations of its provisions are, more than ever, being influenced by commercial interests and politics. Supplementary rules and norms are needed.”

We now have space businesses (and space advocacy groups) driven by libertarian ideology that have convinced our Republican-led Congress to pass laws authorizing U.S. businesses to pursue their dreams of space colonization and resource exploitation with little to no oversight. “Almost 50 commercial and non-profit organizations are listed in the informal directory of the Space Frontier Foundation…, which is committed to facilitating the human settlement of space. These companies are exploring ideas from satellite refuelling to mining asteroids for water and providing extraterrestrial human habitats,” Joan notes.

Witness the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act of 2015, and the pending American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act Free Enterprise Act of 2017. Whether these laws are in compliance with international law – primarily the Outer Space Treaty, which by the terms of the U.S. Constitution is “the law of the land” – is debatable.

My friend Joanne Gabrynowicz, an eminent space-law expert, told Legal Newsline earlier this year that these recently passed U.S. space laws won’t help regulate U.S. space activities. “Overall, these laws and bills are more politics than law and contain little substance… They have a lot of technical legal language, like ‘sense of Congress’ provisions that do not create law. In all, they are intended to appear like authentic law when, in reality, they embody a great deal of legal uncertainty.”

At a series of Senate hearings earlier this year on “Reopening the American Frontier,” so-called “commercial space” executives asked – of course – for minimal regulation of their activities. At a hearing on “reducing regulatory barriers and expanding American free enterprise in space” (April 26), Bigelow Aerospace president Bob Bigelow said it succinctly: “Less regulation is better.”

At a hearing focused on “how the Outer Space Treaty will impact American commerce and settlement in space” (May 23), University of Nebraska law professor Matt Schaefer and Laura Montgomery, former counsel to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, both testified that Article IX of the treaty – which directs signatories (including the U.S.) to “conduct exploration [of celestial bodies] so as to avoid their harmful contamination and also adverse changes in the environment of the Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter and, where necessary,…adopt appropriate measures for this purpose” – requires only consultation, not regulation.

Planetary protection experts disagree. For NASA-funded missions and experiments, compliance with the agency’s planetary protection policy is mandatory. “Commercial space” companies are arguing that they should not be required to comply with any sort of planetary protection policy, and, so far, the FAA commercial space office appears inclined to agree.

If, say, Elon Musk were to be able to build a human colony on Mars – a mission that I doubt will unfold in the near future – his project would certainly contaminate the planet for the purpose of scientific exploration for evidence of past or present martian life. Does one single billionaire have a right to do it? Is this what “free enterprise” means? I’ll argue that we need to get a grip on how “free” enterprise should be – especially in outer space, which is not an exclusively U.S. domain.

At a hearing on “promoting partnerships between commercial space and the U.S. government to advance exploration and settlement” (July 13), Tim Hughes, SpaceX senior vice president for global business and government affairs, testified that his company’s goal is to make humanity a multiplanet species. We hear this claim from SpaceX principals and their fans on an almost daily basis. But, really, the goal of a business is to make money. Period. And though Hughes and his peers continue to argue for minimal government, in his testimony Hughes said the U.S. government needs to modernize launch facilities at Vandenberg Air Force Base to meet the needs of “commercial” launch companies.

The more level-headed Jeff Manber, CEO of Nanoracks, said at the same hearing that while some of his colleagues have “this utopian view” of less government, he doesn’t agree. “One of the things that government does well is provide…basic infrastructure.” – Nanoracks is “leveraging” public investment in infrastructure – specifically, the International Space Station – to make money.

Now let’s get back to Joan’s commentary.

As all this talk of so-called commercial space development goes on, Joan writes, “conventional interests of prestige, geostrategic influence and military missions in space have come to the fore.” Here are some facts about the space policy environment that she highlights:

* “The number of countries, consortia and companies involved in space is growing. In 1959, when the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) was formed, there were 24 members. Today, there are 84.”

* “The United States sees China’s encroachment on space as heightening the risk of a space war. China’s launch of a ‘science mission’ in May 2013 that nearly reached geosynchronous orbit (about 36,000 kilometres above Earth) caused quiet panic in the Pentagon and in US intelligence circles.”

* “Since 2013 [the U.S.] has been preparing for war in space, whatever that might look like. US officials are now actively exploring offensive and defensive space-based activities.”

* “Although weapons of mass destruction are banned in space, weapons in general are not.”

I find these facts sobering.

Meanwhile, advocates of an unfettered campaign of space conquest and exploitation continue to beat their drums. And here’s a deeply disturbing drumbeat: a Mars colonization “anthem” offered up by the ever-nutty Mars Society. “Rise to Mars! Men and women. Dare to dream! Dare to strive! Build a home for our children. Make this desert come alive!”

An anthem? Next thing you know, we’ll be seeing Leni-Riefenstahl-esque propaganda films advocating for the conquest of other planets. I don’t know whether to laugh it off or hide under my bed…. What about you?

Searching for life in the universe: how will we know it’s life?



Earlier this year I reported here on a December 2016 astrobiology workshop held by the National Academies’ Space Studies Board (SSB), at NASA’s request. The National Academies has now published the proceedings of this workshop, “Searching for Life Across Space and Time.” At 132 pages, it’s a dense but fascinating read, if you’re interested in the subject matter.

The subject matter is how to look for, identify, and verify evidence of extraterrestrial life.

The more we learn about life as we know it, and the more we speculate about life as we don’t know it, the more we explore other planetary environments in our solar system, and the more we discover about a wildly diverse population of extrasolar planets, the more complex the task of extraterrestrial life detection becomes.

The astrobiology community is focused on identifying reliable biosignatures – that is, signs of life that can’t be signs of something other than life. (Recall the 1996 claim of fossil evidence of microbial life in the martian meteorite ALH 84001 – a claim that continues to be disputed.) The primary challenge here is that there is no simple answer to the question, “What is life?”

At the SSB workshop, experts focused on four approaches to the search for evidence of life beyond Earth: in-situ detection of life as we know it on solar system bodies; remote detection of life as we know it on extrasolar planets; in situ detection of life as we don’t know it (a.k.a. “weird life”) on solar system bodies; and remote detection of life as we don’t know it on extrasolar planets.

Research into the origin (or origins) of life on Earth has yet to reveal exactly how non-life becomes life. At the workshop, astrobiologist John Baross suggested four approaches to the study of the origin of life: a “paleogenetics” approach, working backward in time by studying fossil evidence of ancient biology and prebiology; a “prebiotic chemistry” approach to identifying the chemical pathway (or pathways) to the simplest first life; the astrobiology approach, searching the cosmos for evidence of an independent genesis of life beyond Earth; and a synthetic biology approach, aimed at designing and building life in the laboratory.

Systems biologist Eric Smith posed these questions to the workshop: Is life a cosmic imperative? How would thermodynamics force life into existence? Is the existence of a biosphere an inevitable result of thermodynamics?

Astrobiologist Morgan Cable described three types of extraterrestrial plumes that could be sampled for evidence of life: volcanic plumes, cometary plumes, and plumes emitted by ocean worlds. Would it be possible to detect extant life by plume fly-throughs at several kilometers per second? She discussed some possible sampling techniques that might (or might not) be successful.

Rather than writing a long blog post, I’ve cherry-picked a few topics covered in this report, topics of particular interest to me. If you’re interested in learning more, take a look through the report’s table of contents, or read Chapter 7, which summarizes previous chapters.


Hurricane Irma: my observations

iss053e003631Hurricane Irma approaching south Florida, as seen from the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

On Tuesday September 12, it’s a beautiful mid-hurricane-season day here in Sarasota, Florida, where I now live. My partner David and I, relocated here from the Washington, D.C., area just three months ago, came through Hurricane Irma unscathed.

Miraculously (I know, not a very scientific word), we did not lose power. We suffered no damage to our (rented) property. Even our pool cage is intact. We were not worried about flooding, as we are about eight miles way from the Gulf of Mexico, equidistant from rivers in the area, and at 30 feet above sea level – the highest elevation in Sarasota County (higher than all but one of the county’s emergency shelter locations). Near the peak of the storm, David worried that our pool would overflow and possibly flood the house, so he went outside (in 50-mph winds) and drained some water out of it.

Our neighbors on both sides spent Sunday night elsewhere. They’re all home now, and all is well. I spoke to another neighbor this morning, who spent Sunday night in a shelter with 3000 other people and 1000 dogs (including her own). She said all were very well behaved.

Nonetheless, it’s been a terrifying time here. Today is the first time in at least a week that I feel free of fear and anxiety.

We are not in a flood/evacuation zone where we live (“know your zone” is a message we heard from multiple sources over and over again.) Nonetheless, at the urging of family and friends, we left our Sarasota home Thursday morning Sept. 7 at 8 am, with the aim of reaching northern Virginia by Friday evening. We brought our 20-year-old cat, Giovanni, with us. Six and a half hours later, we’d traveled 150 miles on I-75 north. We pulled off the highway for gas and found that some stations were already out of fuel.

When we did find a truck stop with fuel, of course it was mobbed. The stop had a single entrance/exit – one lane each way. Panicked drivers were entering the stop in both lanes, making it impossible for vehicles to exit the stop. In the midst of this madness, David spoke with the truck-stop operator, who said he was in contact with other truck-stop operators going several states north. They were reporting that the situation was gridlock all the way.

We’d been listening to public radio stations all along the way, and we were not hearing any useful information about traffic conditions, hotel accommodations, fuel supplies moving north. I checked numerous web sites on my phone: Sarasota Highway Patrol, Florida DOT, I-95 web site, I-75 web site. Ditto.

David and I discussed and discussed and discussed the pros and cons of continuing north or turning around and heading back south, as we inched ahead at 10 miles per hour. We finally agreed that the risks of continuing north were equal to, or perhaps even greater than, the risks of returning home. So we returned. My level of anxiety dropped considerably – until Saturday….

On Thursday evening, our neighbors invited us to dinner and provided us with a lot of tips for storm preparation (for example: release the parking brake on your car, put it in neutral and gently roll it up against the inside of your garage door, for extra reinforcement). My friend Rob, who lives in Houston and just went through Hurricane Harvey (relatively unscathed), gave me a lot of good tips too – such as, have an axe ready in case you have to hack you way out through the roof of your home. Other friends advised us to stash important documents and other valuables in our dishwasher.

On Friday we continued preparations for Irma. At the urging of my friend Theresa in Venice, Florida, I went out in search of a car charger for my iPhone. I’d ordered one online that morning, but Theresa said, “Get one now, you won’t regret it.” At 6 pm on Friday, Best Buy was out of them, but Target came through.

Saturday and Sunday were terrible days. I was sick with fear. David was watching CNN and getting panicked. I begged him to switch to our Sarasota news channel, Suncoast News Network (SNN) – or better yet, to step away from the TV for awhile. By Sunday he’d been switching back and forth between CNN and SNN and looking out the window and realized that our local TV news staff, especially the two on-air meteorologists – Justin Moseley and Marco La Manno – were much better informed about local conditions than anybody else on the air. Even our local public radio station, based in Tampa, was only mildly helpful to us. Tampa and Sarasota are very different places, geographically and demographically.

As the Sarasota Herald Tribune reported yesterday, “By the time Hurricane Irma reached Sarasota County Sunday evening, conditions were more on par with a severe tropical storm than a major hurricane. The maximum sustained winds reported in Sarasota County fell between 40 and 50 mph, with gusts topping 70 mph at Sarasota-Bradenton airport and 80 mph in Venice, according to the National Weather Service. The area saw 5.31 inches of rain, somewhere between the initially predicted 0.86 inches and later forecasts of more than 8 inches. And the six to 10 feet of storm surge that was mentioned at every press conference about the hurricane manifested as 1.7 feet of storm surge at Port Manatee. That was not the way meteorologists predicted it would go.”

I try to avoid clichés, but in this case, it’s apt to say that we dodged a bullet.

I took a walk around our neighborhood this morning. I saw lots and lots of plant debris on the ground – to be expected, as our local environment is lush with vegetation. I saw one live-oak tree uprooted and toppled – but it did not damage any homes. That’s it. Roads are clear. Some gas stations here were pumping gas yesterday. Supermarkets are open today. Trash collection resumes tomorrow (Wed.).

In the course of my work with NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) (and past work with NASA’s Planetary Protection Office), I’ve paid close attention to issues in emergency and risk communication. And I’ve paid VERY close attention to communications about Irma during the past week, as Florida prepared for the storm and as it’s now beginning to recover.

How did state and local officials do on emergency and risk communications? How did the media do?

Florida governor Rick Scott stayed on message for days and days before Irma made landfall here. He met with the press every day. Message #1: If you are subject to mandatory evacuation, go as soon as possible. “We can’t save your property but we can save your lives.” Message #2: If you are told to evacuate and do not do so by the deadline we’ve established, we will not be able to rescue you during the storm. Plan for the worst. Local officials stayed on message too. (Another message from local officials: Once wind speeds reach 70 mph, emergency vehicles will be called off the road.) I give them an A. (I’m sure that over the next few weeks we’ll be hearing stories about communication failures here and there, and that’s okay, because it will help us all do better the next time around.)

Our daily paper, the Sarasota Herald Tribune, was an excellent source of information on how to prepare and what to expect. The paper removed its paywall for the duration of Irma and its aftermath. The paper delivered its Sunday edition on Saturday night. (This morning, Tuesday, the Monday edition was delivered.) The paper’s local news staff did their best to keep up with what was happening. Information on shelter locations, free sandbag distribution sites, what to expect at shelters and what to bring with you, and other “news you can use” ran in the paper for several days up to the storm, as did plans for school, airport, and other closings. I give them an A.

Our local Suncoast News Network gets an A-plus – especially its meteorologists. (See above.) National media? B-minus to C. Moseley and La Manno emphasized the top message: if you’re told to evacuate, do not hesitate. At some point I heard La Manno explain in detail what to expect if worst came to worst. He is a Florida native and so has experienced many hurricanes. I especially appreciated his explanation of what a hurricane sounds and feels like (Rob in Houston has been very helpful on this point, too). La Manno said we’d be terrified by the sounds outside, but if we didn’t feel our house moving, we should stay put. He was very good at calmly and clearly explaining many scary things.

CNN, as to be expected, sensationalized (see above). I told David that this is the way cable news gets you to stay glued to the tube (watching all those commercials). National media are good at keeping us sitting in our seats, with loud music, scary video, and hyberbolic rhetoric, but they cannot provide much information in an emergency that’s useful at the local level. Watching cable TV during an event like Irma is like watching a disaster movie – except this time you feel like you’re in it.

As to social media, in a situation like the one we just experienced here, they are invaluable. I had family, friends, neighbors, our property manager, our realtor, and our power company (Florida Power and Light) in my cell phone. I’d signed up my phone number for Red Alert. (I did not receive any alerts during Irma.)

Texting is especially invaluable. Facebook, too. Our entire social network was in constant communication with us by phone, email, Facebook and Twitter before and after. As soon as I woke up Monday morning (at 2:50 am) and realized the coast was clear (figuratively speaking), I started texting everybody I could think of and emailing everybody else. Thanks to our “evil” telecommunications companies (in our case, Frontier and Verizon), lines of communication have remained fully functioning.

Interestingly, I heard nothing from FEMA directly during this period. I only went to the FEMA web site once, as I was getting all the information I needed from our newspaper, SNN, and the Sarasota County government. I’m assuming that our state and local officials were in constant communication with their FEMA regional colleagues.

David and I have had disagreements over which sources to trust. I tend to have more trust in government sources (“authority”) than he does. I’ve had to learn a lot about how government works in my decades of working in Washington. I’m a scholar of the media and know how to sort reliable sources and information from unreliable. David doesn’t trust my knowledge (“authority”). Thanks to my work with scientists who are finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids, predicting their future orbits, and identifying those that might come close to Earth, I have a good understanding of how much uncertainty surrounds long-term predictions.

The same goes for hurricane forecasting. Forecasters were describing in very good detail how much uncertainty was involved in their predictions of Irma’s movement until, perhaps, 24 hours before landfall in Florida (or less). They did a good job of explaining why longer-term predictions were uncertain. Local media accurately reported forecasters’ explanations. But many people can’t get comfortable with uncertainty. What they want to know is: Is my house gonna blow, or not? Forecasters can’t answer that question, nor can anybody else. (My friend Stephanie just a few miles north of us has power. Her neighbor across the street does not. Such a situation is unpredictable.)

It’s going to be the same in the event of a predicted catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth. (First, rest assured that, as of today, no known asteroid is on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years.) NASA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and many other federal agencies and departments are already working together to plan for an impact emergency (see the National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and the Charter of the Interagency Working Group for Detecting and Mitigating the Impact of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects). The best laid plans may go awry, though, if public trust in them is not strong. Reliable, informed, trustworthy spokespeople are critical resources in an emergency. It’s a challenge we have to work on.

It’s interesting to think about how differences in thinking about authority, legitimacy, trustworthiness, reliability play out from person to person, family to family, household to household in crisis situations.

During the Irma event, the local news sources I chose to trust did not mislead me or let me down. Monday morning, David was accusing CNN of reporting “fake news” on Sunday….

In terms of trustworthiness, my experience reinforces the idea that people tend to trust family and friends first, local leaders and government next, federal government last. I’m no fan of Governor Scott, but his messages were clear and sensible. I chose to heed them. In this case, I paid no attention to anything that might have been coming out of the White House, as I have no trust in the current administration.

I took a walk on Sunday morning, when all was still calm before the storm. I talked with a woman who was watching a flock of sandhill cranes. She was worried about what would happen to wildlife during the storm. I told her that since animals live outside all the time, they probably have ways of sheltering. We humans must continue to improve our ways of sheltering and taking care of each other, as sea surface warms and sea level rises.

Incoming! Hollywood asteroid-disaster melodrama on the way



Tonight at 9 pm EDT, CBS TV premieres “Salvation,” a “new summer series” revolving around an impending catastrophic asteroid impact with Earth.

Based on what I’ve read and seen about the series – you can watch a 15-minute preview here – it looks to me as if this series might be entertaining, if you’re into doomsday-end-of-the-world stories. But it certainly doesn’t promise to be realistic.

This series promises to be an overblown melodrama, with lots of side stories, focusing, as usual, on romances, conspiracies, and other sorts of political intrigue, and perpetuating a number of myths that appear to be near and dear to Hollywood.

Myth #1: If the U.S. government were to know that an asteroid large enough to cause catastrophic damage to Earth was on a certain impact course, it would keep it a secret from citizens.

Mythbuster #1: Impossible. No known asteroids are predicted to be on an impact course with Earth over the next 100 years. NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO) funds the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies, which maintains a public record of all known near-Earth objects and predictions of their orbital paths over the next century. The Minor Planet Center, also funded by the PDCO, maintains public records of global asteroid detections and trackings. If an asteroid is detected by one observer at a particular location, and, hypothetically, that observer is an evil scientist who wants to keep it secret, understand that observers all around the world are watching the same sky, and others will find that asteroid. They can’t all be evil, can they? Yes, of course, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid could impact Earth – see, for example, the Chelyabinsk asteroid impact event of February 2013. Yes, it’s possible that a previously undetected asteroid large enough to cause serious damage to Earth could be on an impact course. It’s possible that an as-yet-undetected asteroid large enough to cause global damage could be on an impact course with Earth. But we’ve found most of the big ones.

Myth #2: The government would silence/eliminate a scientist who’s trying to tell citizens “the truth.”

Mythbuster #2: My colleagues in NASA’s PDCO wonder whether the MIT asteroid expert who’s “disappeared” in Episode 1 of “Salvation” might be modeled at least in part on our MIT colleague Rick Benzel, who’s a for-real asteroid expert and has been speaking out about asteroid impact hazards for years. Rest assured, Rick is alive and well, and I believe my colleagues in government appreciate his service.

Myth #3: A megalomaniacal billionaire, not world governments, will be our only hope of “salvation” from such a catastrophic event (from the 15-minute preview, this is where I’m guessing the story will go…).

Mythbuster #3: Please. The United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) – not Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos or Richard Branson or Nathan Myhrvold (the latter not officially a biollionaire, but nonetheless very rich) – has planetary defense on its radar. With UN endorsement (though not financial support), two multinational groups are coordinating planning for planetary defense again asteroid impacts – the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) and the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG). I’ve been to a number of meetings of both groups, and their members are definitely not interested in operating in secret. What they are interested in is pooling their resources to identify impact risks and prepare for defending the planet in the event – which is, as of today, hypothetical – of an impending impact with Earth.

CBS/Hollywood will keep pumping out the drama, but citizens of Earth, know it’s only a story.

International Asteroid Day: who’s doing what?




As the “Asteroid Day” PR machine is shifting into high gear, let me add some clarity to the buzz. While I’m semi-retired, I’m still doing some consulting work for NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, which encompasses NASA’s Near Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program. The NEO Observations Program funds projects to find, track, and characterize asteroids and identify those that pose a risk of impact with Earth. These NASA-funded projects account for well over 90 percent of NEO detections. No one asked me to write this post.

Asteroid Day, if you’re not already familiar with it, is an annual event that first took place in 2015. A small group of people including two ex-NASA astronauts, a rock-guitarist/scientist, and a science-fiction filmmaker got together a few years back to come up with a way to raise awareness of the hazard of asteroid impacts with Earth. They declared June 30 – the day of the 1908 Tunguska, Siberia, impact event – “Asteroid Day,” and they organized some highly publicized public events to take place on that date. Their first “Asteroid Day” was June 30, 2015. The Asteroid Day team pulled together some big names in science and entertainment and a slew of ex-astronauts and cosmonauts to draw public attention to their cause.

Those events, and the publicity campaign leading up to them, raised some concerns, for me and some of my colleagues in planetary defense. The group’s rhetoric was alarmist – take for example, this quote from AD co-founder Brian May (yes, that Brian May): “The more we learn about asteroid impacts, the clearer it became that the human race has been living on borrowed time… Asteroid Day and the 100X Declaration are ways for the public to contribute to an awareness of the Earth’s vulnerability and the realization that Asteroids hit Earth all the time. Asteroid Day would the vehicle to garner public support to increase our knowledge of when asteroids might strike and how we can protect ourselves.”

The 100X Declaration, calling for “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,” was a concern as well. People who were (and are) actually engaged in the endeavor of in finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids told me that no matter how much money might be invested in the endeavor (money that is not, by the way, available), such a goal would be unachievable.

Members of the planetary defense community – including myself – have been in communication with the Asteroid Day team since June 30, 2015, trying to improve the accuracy of their communications. To their credit, they have been doing so.

For example, this is what the Asteroid Day team now has to say about their 100X Declaration: “The 100x is an aspirational goal. Current asteroid survey projects are finding about 1500 asteroids per year that can come near the Earth. It is not likely that we will detect 100 times this number of asteroids per year with our current capabilities.”

I found this content on the Asteroid Day web site preceding June 30, 2015: “Continuing to orbit our solar system without the knowledge of potentially dangerous asteroids in our orbital neighbourhood is equivalent to playing the odds in a game of Las Vegas roulette – only this time, we are betting our families, homes and indeed future generations. The probability of Earth being impacted in a random location by a 100-megaton asteroid in your lifetime is about the same as the probability of you being killed in an automobile accident. These odds on any individual day are small, yet few among us would drive a car without wearing a seat belt. The 100x Asteroid Declaration calls for the discovery and tracking of 100,000 asteroids a year over the next ten years. In addition to protecting our planet, this increased capability will provide dramatically improved knowledge of our Solar System for scientific and other purposes.”

It no longer appears on the web site.

The sort of language that I call “alarmist” still appears on the AD web site here and there. For example, on a page called “asteroid basics,” you’ll see references to “the threat from asteroids” and “the cosmic shooting gallery.”

But overall, the AD crew has toned down the “threat” rhetoric and improved the clarity, accuracy, and comprehensiveness of the information it provides on what we know about the asteroid population and how we find, track and characterize asteroids and identify those that the experts deem “potentially hazardous.” Many thanks to them and especially to all the experts in the NEO science/planetary defense community, most of them funded by NASA or the European Space Agency, who contributed their expertise to this endeavor.

Despite this progress, the mass media love talk of threats and danger, and at least one scientist involved in Asteroid Day 2017 appears to have taken advantage of that proclivity.

A press release put out by Queen’s University-Belfast on June 20 has garnered some attention with its headline, “QUEEN’S UNIVERSITY SCIENTIST WARNS OF ASTEROID DANGER: A leading astrophysicist from Queen’s University Belfast has warned that an asteroid strike is just a matter of time.” The release leads off: “Fitzsimmons…has said it is a case of when an asteroid collision will happen, rather than if it will happen. Joined by…astronauts such as Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart…Fitzsimmons is highlighting the threat for Asteroid Day, a global event next Friday (30 June).”

Fitzsimmons does note, after sounding the alarm, that “scientists and engineers have made great strides in detecting Near-Earth Asteroids and understanding the threat posed by them. Over 1,800 potentially hazardous objects have been discovered so far, but there are many more waiting to be found. Astronomers find Near-Earth Asteroids every day and most are harmless. But it is still possible the next Tunguska would take us by surprise, and although we are much better at finding larger asteroids, that does us no good if we are not prepared to do something about them.”

On June 23, Fox News (among other media outlets) reported on this release: “Earth could be hit by surprise asteroid strike, expert warns.”

I wonder about the intended purpose of this alarmist rhetoric. Is it to draw attention to an individual or institution? If so, it works. Is it to scare people? If so, for shame… Is it – as some propagators of this rhetoric have claimed – to prod governments to invest more money in asteroid detection and planetary defense? If so, it isn’t working.

Here are some everyday-English definitions of some key terms that I recommend:

  • Hazard: potential to cause harm.
  • Risk: assessment of probability and extent of harm.
  • Threat: a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment, injury, etc., in retaliation for, or conditionally upon, some action or course. (LB note: asteroids are inanimate objects. They have no intent.)

Here’s my answer to the question: what is the risk of an asteroid impact with Earth?

“Risk” is a subjective concept. For scientists who study near-Earth asteroids – or near-Earth objects (NEOs) – “risk” is a mathematical calculation. Based on known orbits of a NEO around the Sun, scientists can calculate the future orbital movements of the object and mathematically predict possible close approaches to or impacts with Earth over the next 100 years. These mathematical predictions are couched in considerable uncertainty. As scientists observe more orbits of a NEO, they can gradually reduce the uncertainty surrounding earlier predictions. Once they collect sufficient data on the object, they will be able to either confirm that an impact will occur on a specific date or eliminate the risk of impact.

Another point of clarity: Asteroid Day is not the same thing as International Asteroid Day. On December 6, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution declaring June 30 annually to be International Asteroid Day, “to raise public awareness about the asteroid impact hazard…. International Asteroid Day will encourage reflection on the impact hazard of asteroids and the global work undertaken in this area and facilitated by UNOOSA, including work by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and its Member States, the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group, and the International Asteroid Warning Network. All United Nations Member States, organizations of the United Nations system, other international and regional organizations, as well as civil society, including non-governmental organizations and individuals, are invited to observe International Asteroid Day. The UNGA’s decision was made after a proposal by the Association of Space Explorers, which was endorsed by COPUOS.”

Additional points of clarity:

  • The proposal by the Association of Space Explorers was spearheaded by ex-NASA astronauts Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu. At the time that they were pushing their proposal to the U.N., they also were engaged in fundraising for their B612 Foundation, which proposed to build and launch a space-based NEO survey telescope, which they called Sentinel. It’s not clear from B612’s “mission” web page whether Sentinel is moving ahead or not.
    • Meanwhile, B612 has partnered with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) project to work on asteroid detection. Steve Chesley and Peter Veres of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Center for NEO Studies (funded by the PDCO) have published the results of a two-year study of the projected NEO discovery performance of the LSST. Their paper (JPL Publication 16-11, April 2017) is available on
  • Danica Remy, co-founder of Asteroid Day, is president of B612. Brian May (yes, that Brian May), is a “strategic advisor” to B612.
  • Neither B612 nor Asteroid Day is participating in the Space Missions Planning Advisory Group or the International Asteroid Warning Network. SMPAG and IAWN are comprised, respectively, of government agencies involved in designing and building space missions and government agencies and other research institutions engaged in the work of finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids.

NASA is not a partner in Asteroid Day, but it is producing an hour of television programming to be aired for Asteroid Day on Friday. This programming will feature researchers funded by NASA as well as some amateur astronomers who are doing the work of finding, tracking, and characterizing asteroids and planning for planetary defense. You can watch this programming on NASA TV.