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Marketing an Asteroid Threat
Joseph Richard Gutheinz

It used to be that on each Christmas Eve, the NASA public relations machine would put out stories about Santa sightings. NASA could do no wrong, and puff pieces were standard stock. Then NASA began experiencing major problems due to its own negligence, as evidenced by the Challenger and Columbia disasters; the Russian Mir Space Station and Hubble Telescope missteps; the huge cost overruns associated with the International Space Station; and the reliance on nonmetrics English units for the Mars Climate Orbiter, which caused the mission’s demise. And just a day before last Christmas Eve, NASA erroneously announced that an asteroid would impact Earth in 2029 — another agency misstep.

As a NASA special agent, I investigated some of the agency’s mistakes, which included, in my opinion, our involvement in the Russian Mir Space Station, especially after the fire and crash, when the Russians should have abandoned Mir per their standard operating procedure but did not. I also received the wide-eyed allegations made by members of the scientific community, including their expressed fear of asteroids, or of an exploding sun.

The one legitimate, though often mocked, concern that NASA received when I was working there was about the launch of the Cassini spacecraft, with 72.3 pounds of plutonium aboard. My concern was that launching this rocket was akin to launching a dirty nuclear bomb, should something go wrong, and that it was thus an unnecessary gamble. Fortunately, however, Cassini’s 1997 launch and, so far, its mission to Saturn and its satellites, including its recent launch of the Huygens probe to Titan, have all been successful (see Geotimes online, Jan. 14, 2005).

In the early 1990s, NASA scientists and engineers were mocking the crazies who denied that astronauts ever walked on the Moon, or who claimed that a major asteroid was going to impact Earth in the near-term and wipe out the human race. However, things have changed, and NASA itself is now periodically sounding the alarm bells about impending doom. In the past decade, near-Earth asteroids have especially received increased attention by the public and press, due in part to movies such as Armageddon in 1998. However, scientists have been monitoring near-Earth asteroids for 30 years.
It all started with the Palomar Planet-Crossing Asteroid Survey, or PCAS, as it is more often called, which was initiated by the legendary astronomer Eugene M. Shoemaker (see Geotimes, January 2004). He, along with David Levy, discovered the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which they accurately predicted would impact Jupiter. From July 16 to July 22, 1994, the entire world was shown pictures of these impacts.

Since 1995, however, the task of seeking out all near-Earth asteroids, especially those that may pose a threat to life on this planet, has fallen to NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Tracking system (NEAT). In a surreal setting atop Mount Haleakala, on the island of Maui in Hawaii, NEAT monitors the skies from the Maui Space Surveillance Site telescope, in cooperation with the U.S. Air Force. NEAT is part of the Near Earth Object Program (NEO) at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), in Pasadena, Calif.

On Dec. 23, NEO scientists tentatively predicted that Asteroid 2004 MN4 had a 1 in 300 chance of impacting Earth on April 13, 2029. In their press release, the scientists said that the asteroid had reached the highest score to date on the NEO hazard scale. But they went on to say that “the possibility of impact will eventually be eliminated as the asteroid continues to be tracked by astronomers around the world.”

When I first heard this story, I thought it would have been more appropriate to project an impact date of April 1 (April Fool’s Day), as such predictions are less science and more science fiction. I base this opinion on the erroneous conclusions JPL has made in the past about asteroids, to include their assessment that there were 2,000 large near-Earth asteroids rather than 322 (in a Jan. 12, 2000, press release), and their own admission, even as they were sending out shock waves about Asteroid 2004 MN4, that their research had not yet been concluded because of inherent uncertainties regarding asteroid trajectories.

Sure enough, four days later, the same scientists ruled out the possibility of an Earth impact in 2029. In my mind, making such a prediction in the first place, before sufficient uncertainties are ruled out, was tantamount to a physician telling a patient he has cancer, before all the essential tests have been returned. In this case, NASA was telling all little boys and girls eagerly awaiting Christmas: Enjoy this one, as you may not have many left.

NASA would prefer to market its successes, but with a mixed bag of successes and failures lately, they have opted for a new public relations ploy: fear — whether it be fear of the environment or fear of asteroids. NASA is counting on fear to prop up their budget and generate new revenue sources. I am not against NASA looking for planet-killing asteroids, and I am all for a planetary defense system that could actually stop a future asteroid or comet like Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 from impacting and destroying all life on Earth. I am just against the marketing of fear when the facts aren’t known.

Science and public relations are separate disciplines, and if NASA continues to incorrectly call wolf, as they admit they did in this case, then who will believe them when a real disaster looms? Scientists owe the public the truth when they know the truth or as time demands. Science should not be used as a public relations gimmick by NASA to scare up additional funding.


Gutheinz, a retired senior special agent with NASA’s Office of Inspector General, is a criminal defense attorney licensed by 10 courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. He is also an instructor at both the University of Phoenix and Alvin Community College. See the November 2004 Geotimes for a story he wrote on recovering stolen moon rocks.

Links:

"Impacts in Space and Earth: An Interview with Carolyn Shoemaker," Geotimes, January 2004
"Huygens touches down on Titan," Geotimes Web Extra, Jan. 14, 2005

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