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NEO News (10/18/05): Astronauts and the Impact Hazard

Status Report From: Ames Research Center
Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2005

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Founded in 1985, the Association of Space Explorers (www.space-explorers.org) is an organization of about 300 astronauts & cosmonauts from 30 countries. They recently made the following statement on NEOs, noting that the ASE stands ready to support productive national and international responses by providing relevant information, organizing meetings or workshops, and providing expert witnesses on the subject of NEOs and the impact hazard. They write that "Given the eventuality of such cosmic collisions and the emerging human capability to actually prevent them, the Association of Space Explorers calls on the governments and relevant international organizations of the world, and their respective leaders, to acknowledge this challenge and accept the responsibility for prevention of these most devastating of all natural disasters. "

The following perspective from a colleague (unrelated to the ASE story) is also interesting: "When I first started contacting leaders in and out of government, I thought that the facts of the NEO issue spoke for themselves. I sent hundreds upon hundreds of letters, I spoke to many Senators and Members of Congress and their staff people. It was my premise that when shown the facts, leaders would quite easily understand the potential consequences of NEO impacts and would take the necessary action to remedy the hazardous situation. Hurricane Katrina showed me that my initial appraisal was flawed. It is now apparent that there is a lot more distance between the point of knowing the facts and the point of taking necessary action. Leaders knew of the inadequacy of the levees and put off strengthening them, gambling that they would not be hit by a big nasty surprise. People who did know of the facts of the situation long before the storm, were not able to raise the consciousness of enough leaders in time to prevent a disaster."

David Morrison


Open Letter of the Association of Space Explorers
19th Annual Congress, Salt Lake City, UT
14 October 2005

The Association of Space Explorers (ASE), meeting in its annual congress in Salt Lake City, Utah from October 10 - 16, 2005, has taken special note of the series of unusually devastating natural disasters that have occurred around the world during the past year. While natural disasters of many types cause death, destruction and disruption of society around the world every year, the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in September 2005 and the Pakistan earthquake in October 2005 have been unusually devastating. These unusually large events have, in our opinion, spotlighted the inadequacy of societal preparation for and response to these large natural disasters. In most cases it is clear in retrospect that the mitigation measures were inadequate not due to lack of understanding, but due to failure to effectively act based on well understood fore-knowledge of the disaster potential.

Yet we astronauts and cosmonauts are particularly concerned by a far more threatening natural disaster for which the world is totally unprepared; namely the future impact of a near-Earth object (NEO) with the Earth. While such cosmic impacts between NEOs and the Earth are infrequent their magnitude is often far greater than any other natural disaster, with an upper bound resulting in global, rather than local or regional devastation. Historically the largest of such cosmic impacts have lead to the virtually instantaneous extinction of a majority of the species alive on the planet at the time of impact.

Due to advances in both the discovery of these objects and in space technology (especially advanced space power and propulsion) we are aware of the unique fact that these infrequent cosmic collisions are, using advanced space technology, both predictable and preventable. This distinctive and providential characteristic of NEO impacts allows the prevention of these largest of natural disasters, if, and only if, national governments and relevant international institutions understand these inevitable events and act together to prevent their occurrence.

In our opinion responsible action consists of three components; the extension of the current discovery and tracking program (Spaceguard Survey) to include the more populous smaller but still highly dangerous NEOs, the continued development of the essential space power and propulsion systems necessary for deflection of any NEO found to be on a collision course, and the cooperative development of international legal and operational policies to facilitate timely and equitable disaster prevention decision-making.

Recognizing the significance of this issue, the ASE stands ready to support productive national and international responses by providing relevant information, organizing meetings or workshops, and providing expert witnesses.

Given the eventuality of such cosmic collisions and the emerging human capability to actually prevent them, the Association of Space Explorers calls on the governments and relevant international organizations of the world, and their respective leaders, to acknowledge this challenge and accept the responsibility for prevention of these most devastating of all natural disasters.

John Fabian & Alexei Leonov, Co-chairmen
Association of Space Explorers


NEO News (now in its tenth year of distribution) is an informal compilation of news and opinion dealing with Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and their impacts. These opinions are the responsibility of the individual authors and do not represent the positions of NASA, the International Astronomical Union, or any other organization. To subscribe (or unsubscribe) contact dmorrison@arc.nasa.gov. For additional information, please see the website http://impact.arc.nasa.gov. If anyone wishes to copy or redistribute original material from these notes, fully or in part, please include this disclaimer.

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