A former Apollo astronaut will meet with officials at NASA heaquarters in mid-June to discuss his grave concerns about the agency’s recent report to Congress about potential ways to deal with asteroids that might hit the Earth some day. Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, the lunar module pilot for the Apollo 9 mission, called a recently issued NASA report on dealing with Earth-threatening asteroids, “flawed” and “not valid” while speaking at a space conference in Dallas May 27.
Earth impacts of huge space rocks are rare, but that history shows such impacts do occur, sometimes with devastating results when
both the Earth and a large asteroid are on course for
an ugly intersection in
time and space.
“It’s those circumstances which we want to avoid,” Schweickart said here during a speech
National Space Society’s 26th annual International Space Development Conference. In fact, 2008 will mark
100th anniversary of one of the largest recorded collisions. In 1908 an asteroid 45 meters to 50 meters in diameter struck a remote area of Siberia near
“Had it hit a couple of hours later it might have wiped out London or Moscow … instead it wiped out 2,000 square kilometers of Siberian forest and maybe a few reindeer,” he said.
is chairman of the B612 Foundation, a group
of scientists, technologists, astronomers, astronauts
and other specialists dedicated to the development by 2015 of a controlled way to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid.
He also is
a member of the Association of Space Explorer’s (ASE) Committee on Near Earth Objects.
Through the ASE organization, whose membership is restricted to the exclusive group of humans who have flown in space, a set of international workshops stretching over a year and a half are being held to further detail the NEO threat and promote a global response.
The results of those workshops, Schweickart said, are to be submitted in the spring of 2009 to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.
“What we’re talking about here is the possibility – in an evolutionary sense – of a Control-Alt-Delete; a [computer-like] reboot of the evolutionary system that has already occurred many times on Earth,” Schweickart said. In any dealings with NEOs,
there is a need for early warning, a deflection capability and an international decision-making capability, he said.
reported that by 2019 asteroid watchers will have on the books upwards of 10,000 objects with some
probability of impacting Earth. “The bottom line,” he said, “is that in the next 10 to 12 years, we are going to, in all likelihood, have to make decisions … not because one of these things is going to hit us … but because several of them look as though they might hit us … We’re going to have to act in a timely way,” Schweickart said. “What is changing dramatically in the next decade is our knowledge of the NEO environment. You have to take action based on your knowledge … your best understanding of the truth.”
NASA recently responded to a study request from Congress – an assessment of how best to track, catalog
and deter a NEO found to be on a collision course with Earth. As one of its major conclusions, the study advised that use of nuclear explosions can deflect such an Earth-bruising event.
That approach is wrong-headed, Schweickart said.
His preference would be to use
existing robot impactor technology to
asteroid’s trajectory ever-so-slightly
an Earth impact.
“Right now, I put NASA in the same category of technical accuracy as Hollywood,”
“NASA did a terrible technical analysis which led them to that conclusion,” Schweickart said. “It’s wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“The report as it stands is not valid. The recommendations that they made are based on an exceptional set of asteroids that they picked rather than what is most likely to be needed to be deflected,” Schweickart said.
“It’s a flawed report.”
“NASA basically pulled off a federal agency version of civil disobedience” by not recommending a program or budget in dealing with the dangers from NEOs. “NASA has just refused to obey the law … that’s not good news.”
In dubbing the NEO issue
a “cosmic natural hazard” nobody is responsible for handling the threat, within the U.S. government or any other government, Schweickart said. He urged conference attendees to write the U.S. Congress and demand a hearing on the results of the NASA report.
“In the next 15 years, the population of the world is going to be concerned about this issue,” Schweickart said. The former Apollo astronaut called for “Mission Rules” for NEO deflection to be drawn up by the international community.
“If we do our homework right, never again should an asteroid that can do damage on the ground impact the Earth,” Schweickart suggested. “We’re living at a time – with our technology – we have the capability to eliminate this major shaper of evolution – the evolution of life on this planet.”
“We’re now on the top of the heap. Enough cosmic gardener, you’re fired. That’s the task … that’s the challenge,” Schweickart said.
and planetary scientist Clark Chapman are scheduled to meet with NASA officials in Washington June 18 to discuss the issue. Chapman and Schweickart would like NASA to modify its study to make it technically correct in several ways. One major point of contention is use of nuclear blasts to deal with threatening objects that have Earth in their cross-hairs.
“We’re hopeful that we can reach an understanding on some fundamental technical issues about how to characterize and deflect a threatening near-Earth asteroid. Then NASA can lay before Congress a wholly sound plan and associated budgetary estimate so that Congress can appropriate the rather modest new funds that would be necessary to address the asteroid hazard,” Chapman said in an interview here.
NASA spokesman David Steitz said in an e-mail the agency is working with Schweickart and takes his concerns seriously. He noted that NASA
Administrator Mike Griffin has personally spoken to Schweickart about the issue.
manager of the NASA Near Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.,
said that, in his mind, the report has been unfairly treated by some members of the community.
“It is important to note the wording of the original request from Congress to NASA in the December 2005 Authorization Act. NASA was asked to provide an analysis of alternatives to detect, track, catalogue
and characterize near-Earth objects and to recommend an option and budget to discover and catalogue 90 percent of the near-Earth objects 140 meters in size or larger by the end of 2020,” Yeomans said.
“To argue that the
congressional report ignored the most likely threats – small NEOs – is to ignore the wording of the legislation itself. The report was concerned with options for the second-generation NEO search effort – not an even more difficult third-generation search,” he said.
also noted that Congress asked the agency
to analyze possible alternatives that NASA could employ to divert an object on a likely collision course with Earth.
the analysis found that some deflection techniques require far less advance knowledge of the object’s physical characteristics than others. “For a relatively large threatening object for which there was little warning time, stand-off nuclear blasts might be the only viable option since this technique, as controversial as it may be, is relatively insensitive to the object’s density and rotation characteristics and can impart significant energy for the deflection. But clearly, this option would only be used when necessary.”
told Space News that the analysis does not pre-select or prefer any particular option and shows that a number of the analyzed options could be appropriate in some scenarios. Furthermore, the report does not recommend any particular deflection options, he said, and the analysis of alternatives only provides guidelines for initial discussions of which options may be appropriate. “On my list of priorities, the NEO survey and characterization activities are first and second, with attention to deflection technologies and tests coming in a distant third.”
Like Schweickart, former shuttle astronaut Tom Jones is a member of the Association of Space Explorers, working on the issue of Near Earth Object deflection decision-making.
“We at ASE want the NEO community and Congress to have the best technical understanding of the problems of search and characterization and deflection,” Jones told Space News. “NASA’s expertise is invaluable, so the ASE and its NEO Committee encourage the free and open exchange of technical judgments with NASA to arrive at a consensus report to Congress representing the true state of the art. That certainly must be NASA’s goal as well,” he added.