Should NASA Be Doing More Asteroids?

This article at Slate says so, but there are some unfounded assumptions in it:

What should be NASA’s most important task — keeping the Earth, and America, safe from asteroid and comet impact — is barely mentioned in its latest strategic plan, released earlier this week. Planning for a mission to deflect a potential cataclysm is left to private organizations like the B612 Foundation, in which a number of engineers and scientists with years of experience with NASA are involved. It’s even headed by former astronaut Ed Lu. But this is too important a task to be left to philanthropists and retirees like the B612 crowd. However laudable their efforts, they lack the resources and capability that the government has. Keeping its citizens safe is the foundational responsibility of government. And in this respect, NASA has been heedless of its responsibilities.

This is just another example of “Space = NASA” thinking. In fact, the reason that there is nothing in NASA’s strategic plan about this is that it has no charter about planetary protection, and it is not currently its “responsibility.” If you think otherwise, go look at the Space Act, and tell me where it is.

In fact, it’s not at all clear that NASA is the right place for this to happen, particularly given all its chronic organizational dysfunction. I would submit that there is currently no government agency chartered to protect the planet. I think I’m going to write up an op-ed or two declaring that it’s time to fundamentally reorganize the federal space establishment, including the formation of the Space Guard.

[Update a while later]

To elaborate, let’s go into the objectives of the agency (just typing out loud here):

(1) The expansion of human knowledge of the Earth and of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.

(2) The improvement of the usefulness, performance, speed, safety, and efficiency of aeronautical and space vehicles.

(3) The development and operation of vehicles capable of carrying instruments, equipment, supplies, and living organisms through space.

(4) The establishment of long-range studies of the potential benefits to be gained from, the opportunities for, and the problems involved in the utilization of aeronautical and space activities for peaceful and scientific purposes.

(5) The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.

(6) The making available to agencies directly concerned with national defense of discoveries that have military value or significance, and the furnishing by such agencies, to the civilian agency established to direct and control nonmilitary aeronautical and space activities, of information as to discoveries which have value or significance to that agency.

(7) Cooperation by the United States with other nations and groups of nations in work done pursuant to this chapter and in the peaceful application of the results thereof.

(8) The most effective utilization of the scientific and engineering resources of the United States, with close cooperation among all interested agencies of the United States in order to avoid unnecessary duplication of effort, facilities, and equipment.

(9) The preservation of the United States preeminent position in aeronautics and space through research and technology development related to associated manufacturing processes.

Now (1) could clearly include looking for rogue asteroids.

(2) and (3) aren’t relevant.

(4) could potentially encompass looking into things like gravity tractors and other means of diversion, if you want to consider not being slammed by a space rock a “potential benefit,” but it doesn’t say that the agency would actually execute such plans.

(5) is too vague to be useful for this (as it always is).

(6) could include telling the DoD about asteroid diversion techniques, assuming that you consider diverting an asteroid a national defense activity, rather than simply managing nature (e.g., flood control or forest management to prevent major fires).

(7) could apply, but it would just be an excuse to get together with other countries to do whatever NASA wanted, not because it’s intrinsically in its wheelhouse.

(8) doesn’t really seem applicable, nor does (9) unless you consider learning how to herd asteroids the development of a new manufacturing process.

Really, folks, it wasn’t what Congress had in mind when they created the agency, and nothing they’ve done to amend it since has substantially changed that. If we’re serious about asteroids, we need to set up an agency that will be focused on that, and not diverted by a bunch of other politically driven things.

One other point. Ed Wright notes in comments: “The National Academy of Sciences bashed the idea of a manned asteroid mission in its recent report on NASA priorities. They see asteroids solely as objects of scientific study and believe unmanned missions are good enough for that.”

The other unfounded and unexamined assumption is that we too strongly correlate space with science. This is probably one of the biggest policy myths that has been holding us back for decades, because the whole idea of a civil space agency developed out of the International Geophysical Year in 1958, and since then, everyone has assumed that NASA’s primary job is to do science. It’s been almost impossible to break out of that mindset and think in terms of space development and settlement. I’m not sure that we’ll ever be able to sever the connection, so it would be better to establish new national goals for space, one of which would be planetary protection, but another would be to enable space commerce including transportation (e.g. search and rescue, constabulary duties, etc.), and set up a new agency (Space Guard) that won’t be distracted by “science” and about whom the National Academy will have nothing to say, to execute them.

30 thoughts on “Should NASA Be Doing More Asteroids?”

  1. The author of the piece in Slate seems to think that NASA can do whatever they want with their money.

    NASA has tried to get funding for an asteroid search system for quite a while. Each time Congress refuses, sometimes making fun of the request. After a while, even rocket scientists learn not to bang their head against the wall.

    1. Not true. NASA received $6 million for asteroid search in 2011 and $20 million in 2012.

      Money to do something about the problem is harder to come by. The National Academy of Sciences bashed the idea of a manned asteroid mission in its recent report on NASA priorities. They see asteroids solely as objects of scientific study and believe unmanned missions are good enough for that.

      Explore Mars gleefully retweeted that message just a few days ago. This event should be hung around Chris Carberry’s neck like an albatross.

      1. The specific requests that NASA made in the 80s were for dedicated telescopes, including at least one in LEO for the search. The costs were well above the money they were given in FY11 and FY12, and IIRC were in the $200-300 million range plus launch costs. I remember one of the line items making it to the floor and being deleted there.

    2. NASA’s job is to make Muslim nations feel good about their contribution to science. That’s what Der Fuehrer says.

  2. ” I would submit that there is currently no government agency chartered to protect the planet.

    Perhaps not formally, but parts of the Air Force consider it part of their duties. However, it’s the same part that does missile defense, which they see as a much more immediate need, so it gets little attention.

  3. Rand,

    It may not be in the Space Act, but NASA was tasked with exploring the feasibility of planetary protection under Section 312 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act (Public Law 109-155). As with Space Settlements NASA dd the bare minimum it could get away with…

    That said, I agree NASA 100% is not the agency the job should be given to.

    The USAF under Gen. Worden would have been a excellent selection and they did more with their LINEAR search to find NEOs than NASA has done in my opinion. Planetary Protection would fit their culture far better that the “Paralysis by Analysis” culture at NASA.

    But if Congress would agree to the idea of a separate Space Guard it would also be good and the infrastructure they would need to build to carry it out could well play the same role in promoting space commerce and settlement as the old Army forts protecting the frontier did for development of the U.S. West. Even better would be if Gen. Pete Worden was its first commander 🙂

    1. Protecting the people from foreign threats certainly is a legitimate function of government. I think it’s safe to add extraterrestrial threats to that as well.

      I like the rest of your comment, too.

    2. Great comment, and Gen. Worden sounds perfect.
      Typo: Your link goes to a PDF describing Section 321 of the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, not section 312.

    1. No, strategic defense is against hostile action in a war, not acts of nature. Assuming you wanted to prevent the Yellowstone Caldera from cutting loose, it wouldn’t make sense to put the Air Force in charge of it. Same applies here.

      In the current setup, the most appropriate agency would be the Corps of Engineers (the analogy being flood control), but they’re not competent for it. It really needs a new entity established specifically for that purpose, so it won’t be diverted and distracted with other things.

  4. There are some duties relegated to the government and this should be one of them. There are some things a privately sponsored mission cannot do, especially if a deflection strategy involves a nuclear warhead. In that scenario the government would have to consult with the UN to operate a nuclear device in outer space. Beyond that it is unlikely that the government would hand over a nuclear weapon to a private company to take care of the job. I am all for commercial space, but there are some things the government needs to be doing, and asteroid deflection is one of them.

    1. My point is not government versus private, but whether or not NASA is the appropriate assignee. To some people it’s the obvious choice, but that’s because they don’t understand space policy.

  5. IMHO, national defense is the only constitutional responsibility of the federal government. That would include space defense, so a space guard makes sense to me.

    They’d focus first on assessing the threat, then how to deal with it. Keeping in mind it’s not how often the threat but that all of humanity hangs in the balance. The main thing would be to keep their focus narrow so mission creep didn’t balloon them into another bloated agency.

  6. Really? No bigger fish to fry?
    What say we let our communist overlords worry about this in about 5 years.

  7. I think people like the idea of NASA being to go to people for anything related to space. Sounds fine, but the trouble is that it conflicts with NASA’s main mission, as described in budgets as opposed to the Space Act, which is to distribute pork.

  8. I’m hoping that Russia, perhaps together with China and India, will be inspired to set up a system to detect and divert dangerous asteroids and meteoroids.

    Sad to say, I don’t think the US is up to the task of doing anything useful right now.

  9. A new sunspot, AR1675, just unleashed an M1.9-class flare, the most intense of the year so far. The definition of planetary defense should be expanded to include space weather as well as asteroids.

    1. Well this particular flare didn’t produce a coronal mass ejection (CME) so satellites and ham radio communications are safe for now.

  10. The problem with creating a new agency is that it would be created by Congress. If Congress viewed those other things as priorities, it would have instructed NASA to work on them. So, there’s a Catch 22.

    1. As with the previous NEO hearings (check out the transcripts at your local library) a number of NASA scientists and Washington space policy “Experts” will testify its nothing to worry about.

      They will make the claim no one has ever been killed by a impact event, the odds of it happening are small and there are much higher spending priorities. They will also point out their is no evidence the American public is worried about it and hint that voters might even thing its stupid (your Congressional Representative thinks the sky is falling!).

      Then after making the Congressional Committee look like a bunch of chicken littles for worrying about it they will tell them IF they really want to do something about it (to say they did something) then just fund another small ground base observatory.

      And Oh Yes, don’t forget the “purpose” of the SLS/Orion is to someday visit a NEO, SO if you are REALLY worried about it then keep the money flowing for SLS/Orion…

      The only thing that will change that is when a major western city (Russia doesn’t seen to count) is turned into a hole in the ground with 24/7 news coverage of it. Or Congress stops viewing NASA as THE authority on space.

      So don’t expect anything to come out of the Hearings that are useful. I don’t.

  11. the whole idea of a civil space agency developed out of the International Geophysical Year in 1958

    That was the excuse, anyway. The bigger reason was Eisenhower’s desire to remove space exploration from the military for Cold War propaganda purposes. Whether that removal still makes sense, in the modern world, is a question no one has really asked.

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