House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing: Threats from Space

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democrats
Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2013

image (Washington, DC) - Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing titled, "Threats from Space: A Review of U.S. Government Efforts to Track and Mitigate Asteroids and Meteors, Part 1," to hear testimony on the roles and responsibilities of agencies in detecting, tracking, and monitoring near-Earth objects (NEOs), including those that are potentially hazardous; the resources, technologies and methods used; and coordination between government agencies or organizations. Testifying before the Committee were The Honorable John P. Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP); Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command; and The Honorable Charles F. Bolden, Jr., Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Part 2 of the Committee's examination of NEOs will be held by the Subcommittee on Space in early April.

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her opening statement, "There is increasing scientific evidence that impacts by large asteroids and comets have had profound consequences for life on Earth at various times in the past, even contributing to mass extinctions. While such events are very rare, they obviously can cause untold damage, and are not something we want to have happen if we can avoid it. I think it is our increased scientific understanding of Near Earth Objects and their potential to impact the Earth that has led Congress to take this subject seriously in recent years."

The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has led the establishment of U.S. policy on dealing with potentially threatening near-Earth objects since the 1990s. Congress has issued direction to NASA to survey, monitor, and characterize potentially hazardous objects and to meet stated goals and timelines. NASA's NEO program and survey has been implemented in response to the Congressional mandates. In addition, the 2008 NASA Authorization Act included direction on the establishment of a lead agency for protecting the planet and on initiating international dialogue in response to the threat of a hazardous near-Earth object headed for Earth.

NASA also works with other Federal entities like the National Science Foundation (NSF) in characterizing NEOs. NASA, FEMA, DOD, DHS, and the State Department would all have responsibilities in case of a threat from a NEO.

Witnesses and Democratic Members discussed a number of issues including the importance of international cooperation when dealing with NEOs; which agency would have overall responsibility for protecting the U.S. from NEOs; the challenge in establishing the cost effectiveness of investing in detection or mitigation; and the impact of the sequester on the U.S.'s ability to effectively make progress on addressing these issues and emergency response.

Administrator Bolden when asked about the impact of the sequester said, "It would be very easy for this Congress and for the Administration to say why are we worried about exploring beyond low-earth orbit? Can't we just put that off for five or ten years? The reason that I can't do anything in the next three weeks is because for decades we have put it off for the next five or ten years. We don't have contractors who go away from doing their job and then five years from now we call and say "Okay, we want to build a rocket". They'll tell me, "With whom? We don't do that anymore..." This is really important, and it has to be continuous. The President has a plan, but that plan is incremental...If we want to save the planet, because I think that's what we're talking about, then we have to get together...and decide how we are going to execute that plan as expeditiously as possible."

Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) emphasizing the importance of NASA's role in dealing with NEOs said, "NASA's combined scientific, technical, and engineering capability is absolutely essential to informing critical decisions on mitigation of a potentially hazardous object. This dependence on NASA, who we always seem to call for 911 assistance in all space matters, is in stark contrast to the across-the-board sequester cuts to NASA's programs that are now law." She continued, "I am struck with how complex this planetary protection issue is and how much farther we need to go. That is why Congress needs to ensure continued investment in and attention to efforts that will address the potential threats of near-Earth objects."

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