The Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee hearing last Wednesday on “Assessing the Risks, Impacts, and Solutions for Space Threats” was seen by many as the Senate’s counterpart to a House Science Committee hearing the day before on the subject of threats posed by near Earth objects (NEOs). While it didn’t have the star power of the House hearing, which featured NASA administrator Charles Bolden and presidential science advisor John Holdren, the Senate hearing did include Jim Green, head of the planetary science division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, as well as Ed Lu, chairman and CEO of the B612 Foundation, which is raising funding for Sentinel, a mission to look for NEOs.
In fact, the hearing went far beyond NEOs. The “space threats” considered during the hearing went beyond NEOs to include include orbital debris, geomagnetic storms, radiofrequency interference for communications satellites, reliability concerns among spacecraft and launch vehicles, and even the lack of awareness the public has about the importance space plays in modern society. The result was a hearing that, while perhaps informative for those who attended (although only two senators, subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson and new ranking member Ted Cruz, were present), didn’t break much new ground in terms of policy.
They did, though, try to give a boost to actor Bruce Willis’s career. After Nelson read the list of four witnesses testifying before the subcommittee, Cruz chimed in. “I will confess, given the topic today, disappointment that Bruce Willis was not available to be a fifth witness today on the panel,” he joked, referring to the actor’s role in the 1998 asteroid impact movie Armageddon.
Later, after the witnesses’ opening statements, Nelson went back to that earlier comment. “Maybe we ought to have Bruce Willis start doing another Armageddon movie to get everybody sensitized to the fact of how space could well play such a huge consequence in our lives if one of these asteroids starts coming towards us,” Nelson said (perhaps forgetting that Willis’s character, Harry Stamper, dies in Armageddon.) Cruz then chimed in. “There is probably no doubt that actually Hollywood has done more to focus attention on this issue than perhaps a thousand congressional hearings, although I would not wish a thousand congressional hearings on anyone.”
Joan Johnson-Freese of the Naval War College, who testified about her concerns that space is not appreciated by the public, argued that movies like Armageddon did more harm than good with respect to raising public awareness. “What that movie did was basically convince the American public that if anything bad happened, people would get into the shuttle and go fix it,” she said. There needs to be more of an effort, she said, to get the facts about NEOs and the threats they pose to the public, and the ability—or inability—to deal with them. “The movie industry has really convinced much of the American public that we’re all over it, we can take care of it.”
Moreover, if there was any effort to try and deflect a threatening NEO, humans likely wouldn’t be flying to such an object. Asked by Nelson if NASA’s goal of a human asteroid mission by 2025 would be useful for mitigation activities, Lu said there there would be “great science” in such a mission, but it would be less relevant for deflecting asteroids. “I think likely the deflection mission that we have to mount someday—and we will have to, someday, we know that—is likely to be done robotically, just because the distances are quite large from the Earth,” he said. If only Harry Stamper had known that in 1998…