Wednesday, June 19, 2013

NASA’s Grand Challenge: Science or Politics?

NASA just announced an initiative to collaborate with scientists and citizens around the world to 

1. search for asteroids that may threaten Earth and

2. develop an asteroid action plan. 

Is this a good thing? While reading the announcement I couldn’t help but think that something isn’t quite right here.


Is this “Grand Challenge” truly a new thing? Prior to today, how did NASA deal with announcements of a near Earth object from external agencies?

Farmer in Kansas: Hi NASA, I just spotted a previously unidentified asteroid on a trajectory that will put it between the moon and Earth? It may be heading straight for us!
NASA receptionist: That’s nice. (click!)

Will the Grand Challenge force this receptionist to put down her nail-file and press the red button to sound the alarm? Unlikely. I suspect NASA already has a long history of treating any credible observation of an asteroid with the respect it deserves. A new Grand Challenge isn't going to change that. 

Additionally, the options for dealing with an imminent threat from space are continuously being explored in science and fiction. I am sure members of NASA watch movies just as much as I do. They must have seen the elaborate attempts at diverting asteroids in films like, “Deep Impact” and “Armageddon.” Some of the brilliant minds at NASA have probably already “Mythbustered” these attempts to determine which of them are “Busted” and which are “Plausible.”


In the announcement NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver states that “we have found 95 percent of the large asteroids near the Earth's orbit.” This sounds like a number they just made up. After all, how could they know that the number of asteroids they currently have identified is equivalent to 95% of the total, without knowing the total?   Even as an estimate, 95% seems irrelevant given that just last week a truck sized asteroid was detected one day before it reached its closest point to Earth. Are we supposed to feel warm fuzzy comfort because only 5% of these extinction level asteroids have yet to be found?

The announcement included a statement from the White House deputy director for technology and innovation Tom Kalil that “… finding asteroid threats, and having a plan for dealing with them, needs to be an all-hands-on-deck effort.” What does that mean? If the White House truly believed that an all-hands-on-deck effort was needed, they would increase NASA funding so more experts in mathematics and physics could systematically search the skies, rather than rely on unpaid, unsystematic, haphazard stargazing.
NASA’s Grand Challenge simply reflects certain truths about space exploration and the current political climate: 
  • Giving space exploration more money is politically not feasible (after all, in the USA, even allocating money to health care is controversial)
  • While getting hit by an asteroid would be bad, getting hit by an asteroid without previous posturing about trying to stop it would be worse.
  • More eyes looking to the skies for an asteroid is a good thing, more eyes doing it for no more money is a better thing
  • Until someone proposes a full-proof plan for destroying or deflecting a near Earth object, with a working prototype of proposed technological innovations and test case data demonstrating efficacy in a real-world situation (in other words until someone actually saves the Earth on their own dime) the four letters that we will turn to when an asteroid is on a collision course will not be N A S A, they will be H O P E.

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