DALLAS, Texas ?- A former Apollo astronaut blasted the U.S. space agency today in its handling of a Congressionally-mandated study on dealing with the threat of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) striking the Earth.
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.?
Schweickart noted that Earth impacts of huge space rocks are rare. But as history has shown, a cosmic-smashing event is a very real occasion?when both the Earth and an asteroid can be at an ugly intersection of time and space. ?It?s those circumstances which we want to avoid,? Schweickart said here today at the 26th annual National Space Society?s International Space Development Conference.
In fact, next year is the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Siberia-smacking Tunguska event of a 45 to 50 meter diameter asteroid. ?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 Siberia forest and maybe a few reindeer,? Schweickart observed.
Schweickart is Chairman of the B612 Foundation, a confab of scientists, technologists, astronomers, astronauts, and other specialists dedicated to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015. He was also wearing his hat as a member of the Association of Space Explorer?s (ASE) Committee on Near Earth Objects.
Through the ASE organization, 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 to potential Earth-menacing objects. 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 space rocks, there?s need for early warning, a deflection capability and an international decision-making capability, Schweickart said.
Schweickart reported that by 2019 asteroid watchers will have on the books upwards of 10,000 objects with a non-zero 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, as well as 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 responded. Rather, using existing robot impactor technology, as well as a gravity-tractor method of altering the asteroids trajectory ever-so-slightly, would give you both the oomph and the precision that you need to re-direct a NEO from an Earth impact.
?Right now, I put NASA in the same category of technical accuracy as Hollywood with Deep Impact and Armageddon,? he noted, two less-than-accurate movies that featured Earth-impacting objects.
?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 told SPACE.com. ?It?s a flawed report.?
Schweickart said that ?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.?
Wanted: mission rules
In dubbing the NEO issue as 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 concluded.
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NOTE: The views of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the National Space Society.
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