Ex-Astronaut Says NASA Asteroid Report Flawed

DALLAS, Texas ?- A former Apollo astronaut blasted the U.S. spaceagency today in its handling of a Congressionally-mandated study on dealingwith 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 dealingwith Earth-threatening asteroids, ?flawed? and ?not valid.?

Schweickart noted that Earth impacts of huge space rocks arerare. 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 timeand space. ?It?s those circumstances which we want to avoid,? Schweickart saidhere today at the 26th annual National Space Society?s InternationalSpace Development Conference.

In fact, next year is the celebration of the 100thanniversary of the Siberia-smacking Tunguska event of a 45 to 50 meter diameterasteroid. ?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 andmaybe 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 ofan asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015. He was also wearing his hat as amember of the Association of Space Explorer?s (ASE) Committee on Near EarthObjects.

Through the ASE organization, a set of internationalworkshops, stretching over a year and a half, are being held to further detailthe NEO threat and promote a global response to potential Earth-menacingobjects. The results of those workshops, Schweickart said, are to be submittedin the spring of 2009 to the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

Earth: Control-Alt-Delete

?What we?re talking about here is the possibility?in anevolutionary sense?of a Control-Alt-Delete; a [computer-like] reboot of theevolutionary system that has already occurred many times on Earth,? Schweickartsaid.

In any dealings with space rocks, there?s need for earlywarning, a deflection capability and an international decision-makingcapability, Schweickart said.

Schweickart reported that by 2019 asteroid watchers willhave on the books upwards of 10,000 objects with a non-zero probability ofimpacting Earth. ?The bottom line,? he said, ?is that in the next 10 to 12years, we are going to, in all likelihood, have to make decisions?not becauseone of these things is going to hit us?but because several of them look asthough they might hit us.?

?We?re going to have to act in a timely way,? Schweickartsaid. ?What is changing dramatically in the next decade is our knowledge of theNEO environment. You have to take action based on your knowledge?your bestunderstanding of the truth.?

Civil disobedience

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 beon a collision course with Earth. As one of its major conclusions, the studyadvised that use of nuclear explosions can deflect such an Earth-bruisingevent.

That approach is wrong-headed, Schweickart responded.Rather, using existing robot impactor technology, as well as a gravity-tractormethod of altering the asteroids trajectory ever-so-slightly, would give youboth the oomph and the precision that you need to re-direct a NEO from an Earthimpact.

?Right now, I put NASA in the same category of technicalaccuracy as Hollywood with Deep Impact and Armageddon,? he noted, twoless-than-accurate movies that featured Earth-impacting objects.

?NASA did a terrible technical analysis which led them tothat conclusion,? Schweickart said. ?It?s wrong, wrong, wrong.?

?The report as it stands is not valid. The recommendationsthat they made are based on an exceptional set of asteroids that they pickedrather than what is most likely to be needed to be deflected,? Schweickart toldSPACE.com. ?It?s a flawed report.?

Schweickart said that ?NASA basically pulled off a federalagency version of civil disobedience? by not recommending a program or budgetin dealing with the dangers from NEOs. ?NASA has just refused to obey thelaw?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 orany other government, Schweickart said. He urged conference attendees to write theU.S. Congress and demand a hearing on the results of the NASA report.

?In the next 15 years, the population of the world is goingto be concerned about this issue,? Schweickart said. The former Apolloastronaut called for ?Mission Rules? for NEO deflection to be drawn up by theinternational community.

?If we do our homework right, never again should an asteroidthat can do damage on the ground impact the Earth,? Schweickart suggested. ?We?reliving at a time -- with our technology -- we have the capability to eliminatethis 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.

NOTE: Theviews of this article are the author's and do not reflect the policies of the NationalSpace Society.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.