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Don't Know Much About Space Policy

Gregg Easterbrook thinks that NASA should be saving the planet from errant asteroids, instead of building a moon base. He can't avoid the usual straw man, of course, which makes much of the rest of his whining about moon bases suspect:

As anyone with an aerospace engineering background well knows, stopping at the moon, as Bush was suggesting, actually would be an impediment to Mars travel, because huge amounts of fuel would be wasted landing on the moon and then blasting off again.

Bush only "suggested" that to people who miss the point of the program. No one is proposing that every, or even any, mission to Mars touch base on the moon before going on to the Red Planet. The point was that the moon might be a useful resource for making Mars missions more cost effective, particularly if we can find water there, and deliver it as propellant to some staging point, such as L-1, which isn't particularly out of the way en route to Mars. In addition, learning how to build a base on the moon, only three days away, is valuable experience to wring the bugs out of a Martian base, which is months away, despite the different environments.

But ignoring that, the real problem is that he doesn't seem to understand NASA's role:

After the presentation, NASA's administrator, Michael Griffin, came into the room. I asked him why there had been no discussion of space rocks. He said, "We don't make up our goals. Congress has not instructed us to provide Earth defense. I administer the policy set by Congress and the White House, and that policy calls for a focus on return to the moon. Congress and the White House do not ask me what I think." I asked what NASA's priorities would be if he did set the goals. "The same. Our priorities are correct now," he answered. "We are on the right path. We need to go back to the moon. We don't need a near-Earth-objects program." In a public address about a month later, Griffin said that the moon-base plan was "the finest policy framework for United States civil space activities that I have seen in 40 years."

Actually, Congress has asked NASA to pay more attention to space rocks. In 2005, Congress instructed the agency to mount a sophisticated search of the proximate heavens for asteroids and comets, specifically requesting that NASA locate all near-Earth objects 140 meters or larger that are less than 1.3 astronomical units from the sun--roughly out to the orbit of Mars. Last year, NASA gave Congress its reply: an advanced search of the sort Congress was requesting would cost about $1 billion, and the agency had no intention of diverting funds from existing projects, especially the moon-base initiative.

Now, I disagree with Mike that we don't need an NEO program--I think we do. But unlike Gregg, I wouldn't put NASA in charge of it. And if Congress wants to fund NASA to look for space rocks, it's going to have to tell NASA not to do the other things that it wants to do, or fund it. Also, this was a little verbal gymnastics on Gregg's part. Mike said that Congress had not instructed NASA to defend the earth, which is true, and the fact that they asked NASA to look for hazardous objects doesn't change that fact in any way, despite his sleight-of-hand at the keyboard. Looking for objects is one thing--actually physically manipulating them is a different thing entirely. It's like the difference between the CIA and the military. The former provides intelligence, the latter acts on it.

The Space Act (almost fifty years old now) does not grant NASA the responsibility to protect the planet, even with subsequent amendments. It is simply not its job. Moreover, no federal agency has that job, and as Gregg points out, if the US military were to take it on, there would be widespread suspicion on the part of the rest of the planet, and it would open us up to tremendous liability if something went wrong (not that there would necessarily be any lawyers around to care).

And is it really the job of the military? Again, as Gregg points out, this is a natural problem, not an enemy. If ET, or Marvin the Martian presented a threat, it would make sense to get the Air Force (or if we had one, Space Force) involved, because that is a willful enemy to be engaged, which is what we have a military for.

But as I've written before (six years ago--geez, where does the time go?), the only historical analogue (at least in the US) we have for planetary defense is the management of flooding by the Army Corps of Engineers. This is a predictable (though not as predictable as an asteroid or comet strike) natural disaster, at least statistically, and one that can be managed by building dams, which is largely what they do.

Now, I'm not proposing that the ACE be put in charge of defending the planet, but that thought isn't much more frightening than putting NASA in charge of it. Yes, Gregg, we could lobby to get Congress to amend the Space Act to put it in the agency's portfolio, but do you really think that would be a good idea? NASA is fifty years old this year, and bureaucratically, it acts much older than that. You don't want to take an existing agency, with too much on its plate, and too little resources with which to do it (and yes, much of what it's doing it shouldn't be doing, but that's a different discussion) and give it such an important, even existential task. It worked fine in the sixties, because it was a young, new agency with a focus on a single goal (though it managed to accomplish a lot of other things along the way in terms of planetary exploration--Tom Paine once told me that there was so much going on during Apollo that NASA did a lot of great things that it didn't even know it was doing).


I've often said that if the president really thought that the VSE was important, he would have taken a policy lead from the Strategic Missile Defense program in the eighties, in which an entirely new entity was established to carry it out (SDIO, now BMDO), because it would otherwise get bogged down in blue-suit politics in the Air Force.

I agree that we should be doing much more about this threat than we are, but just because NASA is ostensibly a space agency doesn't mean that they should be in charge of it. I would establish a planetary defense agency, which had that as its sole charter. It might ask for (and occasionally get) cooperation from NASA, but it would do the same with the Air Force, and it would put out contracts to the private sector, and it would coordinate with COPUOS and encourage other nations to establish such entities to enter into cooperative agreements. If you ask NASA to do it, it will just become one more boondoggle, or it will get buried in the agency's other priorities. Either way, if it's important, you don't want a sclerotic agency, long past its sell-by date, to be in charge.


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Mike Puckett wrote:

Well, courts have rule that the jurisdiction of the ACOE encompases anything that threatens 'navigable waters'.

I would think an asteroid would fit that bill and thus the ACOE already has jurisdiction over NEO's!

Don't you love bureaucratic logic?

Robert wrote:

Do all bureaucracies become hopelessly "sclerotic" as they age? Aren't there agencies that are chronologically older than NASA but act younger? Wouldn't the US armed services be examples? What keeps an agency healthy?

When I google "oldest federal agency" (but without the quotes), I see that many US federal agencies claim to be the oldest - it almost a point of pride!

Edward Wright wrote:

The Space Act (almost fifty years old now) does not grant NASA the responsibility to protect the planet, even with subsequent amendments. It is simply not its job.

True, but the NASA Act is a bit like the Constitution. A quaint relic no one pays much attention to. :-)

"To understand and protect our home planet..." was written into NASA's mission statement by Sean O'Keefe and frequently cited by Dr. James Hansen and other global warmers. Mike Griffin removed that line from the mission statement but stressed that he still remains committed to it as a goal.

I don't think Sean O'Keefe intended that line to cover anything other than global warming and pollution but extending it to asteroid threats would not be a stretch if someone wanted to.

Rusty Schwiekert seems to think that asteroid deflection is NASA's job (when he doesn't think it's the UN's job), and parts of NASA agree:

"If those readings still could not rule out a strike in 2036, NASA would try to deflect the asteroid into a non-threatening course in the 2024-2028 time frame by firing an impactor at it using this year's Deep Impact comet-blasting probe as a model."

The NEO Preparedness Act would make NASA responsible for "selection of procedures and systems" for asteroid deflection:

So, there is some "mission creep" in that direction.

Ed Minchau wrote:

Edward, the last time I saw a video of Rusty Schweickart talking (in a speech to the Long Now Foundation) about NEOs, he was saying that there really isn't any government agency anywhere that was prepared to make policy decisions about asteroids, particularly if one was a threat to hit the earth in the near future. That is, there was nobody authorized to make a decision on what to do if for instance Apophis were to pass through the keyhole in 2029. From what I recall from that talk, he was basically arguing Rand's point, that a new agency should be established for defense against planetary impacts, with the authority to make decisions on what to do and then to act on those decisions. This is all from memory though... ">here is the video.

Ed Minchau wrote:

Aw crud. Trying that again: here is the video.

Arthur wrote:

Putting the ACOE in charge of Asteroid defense would be like putting a giant Asteroid magnet on the planet. At least, if they did the job as well as they did in New Orleans...

Jason Bontrager wrote:

Why on Luna would anyone want to "blast off" from the Moon? Wouldn't it make more sense to get flung off via a magnetic catapult of some sort? Make it long enough and you could spend a significant part of the (relatively short) journey to Mars just decelerating.

Karl Hallowell wrote:

Putting the ACOE in charge of Asteroid defense would be like putting a giant Asteroid magnet on the planet. At least, if they did the job as well as they did in New Orleans...

Well, for some reason New Orleans is still alive and kicking. And dry. I wonder whose fault that is?

Mac wrote:

Wouldn't it make more sense to get flung off via a magnetic catapult of some sort?

Yeah, imagine how much NASA could blow building that!

Brock wrote:

Speaking of getting experience at building Moon/Mars bases, when was the last time we really built a self-sufficient base here on Earth? As I recall, BioSphere2 was a disaster that was called off less than half-way through the project.

Submarines and aircraft carrier are pretty self-sufficient, but they bring many tons of food with them that would be difficult to launch and would "fail badly" if the mission went overly long. Once we have CRATS a Moonbase could be resupplied from Earth pretty easily, but a Marsbase ... not so much.

Fletcher Christian wrote:

Here we go again...

Yes, NASA is long past its sell-by date and ought to be disbanded. Won't happen; too many Congressmen owe their jobs to it, due to the pork-barrel aspects of NASA facility placement.

It might just be possible to prohibit NASA from actually doing anything at all; to make it a procurement agency and outsource everything.

Of course, given a substantial space presence (by which I mean 4 or 5-digit numbers of people in space, with corresponding amounts of hardware) the asteroid defense problem goes away - if an NEO threatens, simply mine it to nothing and get something useful in the process.

Leave it to NASA, and it won't happen this millennium. I continue to suspect that, buried in the bowels of some underground bunker, there is the evidence that the real mission of NASA is to prevent large-scale space access by fair means or foul. However, there is a saying about this; something like "never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence". Pournelle's Iron Law continues to hold.

MAC wrote:

Rather than give this task to ACE, we already have a working model for the monitor/detection/alert/escalation and it lives within NORAD. (They also track Santa!)

Essentially that model can be suitably reworked under an aligned command and control structure, and roughly speaking replace "inbound USSR Bogey" with "inbound honkin piece of 1km ice/iron/etc", granted the heavy lifting here is figuring out what the proper response will entail, and that scenario work should be a combination of private sector, ACE, etc.

Ironcially, I think Clarke noted that for substantially less than the cost of making the movie "Armegeddon" we could actually implement a working SpaceGuard type detection and monitoring system, why this hasn't been done is largely inexcuseable, or will be if we get hit.

Chip Stevens wrote:

Every Easterbrook article must contain at least one howling mistake demonstrating that he has not checked his facts. I liked this one: "The Pan-STARRS project has no military utility, so why is the Air Force the sponsor?"

Pan-STARRS is designed to track and image foreign satellites in space. The astronomers only get to use it part-time, when the Air Force is not using it for national security purposes. Easterbrook would have learned this if he had made a phone call.

There's other mistakes as well, but they're not worth going into. He should not have swallowed the B612 Foundation's story hook, line and sinker either. It's a very one-sided article.

narciso wrote:

What about the threat from Anubis, Baal and the other Goauld's. Seriously though, the point of going to the moon, is mining their minerals, extracting H3 for Fusion plans, more long duration
missions etc. Really building on the Hudson, Miniut
and Myles Standish metaphor.

CJ wrote:

granted the heavy lifting here is figuring out what the proper response will entail

Proper response? Like altering the trajectory so it drops on an Axis of Evil site? ;-)

Jeff wrote:

Brock: Biosphere 2 is not really the right model for building an extraterrestrial base. It was an experimental station whose purpose was to try to build a self-contained ecosystem which would handle all the life-support needs of the human occupants. It was useful as an experiment largely because of what was learned by its failure. But any actual base wouldn't necessarily be built along those lines. Instead, it would probably use artificial chemical methods for maintaining the atmosphere, cleaning the water, and so on. Any food plants on such a base would probably be grown hydroponically, and in many other ways very differently from the attempt at a "natural"-type ecosystem in Biosphere 2, which also tried to maintain a whole range of different environments.

Which is not to say that there's nothing to be learned in trying to build a prototype sealed base on Earth (which has been done) or for that matter in orbit (also done) or on the Moon (the issue at hand) before trying for Mars. For that matter, there's value in trying again at building a self-contained ecosystem - but as an experiment, not a space station.

Paul F. Dietz wrote:

Pan-STARRS is designed to track and image foreign satellites in space. The astronomers only get to use it part-time, when the Air Force is not using it for national security purposes.

I find this hard to believe. What is your documention? In particular, Pan-STARRS is a wide field survey telescope system, designed for collection of data over broad swathes of the sky, which is not what you'd want to use for imaging individual satellites.

Perhaps the Air Force will be a consumer of the survey data produced by Pan-STARRS, but that does not require any interference with its civilian astronomy.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on May 14, 2008 4:17 PM.

"Don't Freak Out" was the previous entry in this blog.

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