As previously noted here, Friday’s relatively close (cosmically speaking) flyby of asteroid 1998 QE2 provided NASA and the Obama Administration an opportunity to promote the agency’s asteroid initiative, including plans for an asteroid retrieval mission. That outreach did achieve one benchmark of effectiveness: the asteroid flyby made it into Friday’s White House press briefing, when a reporter asked deputy press secretary Josh Ernest if President Obama had been briefed on the flyby:
Q Josh, your website says you’re hosting a discussion this afternoon about this asteroid that’s going to be passing fairly close to Earth today. Has the President been briefed about the asteroid?
MR. EARNEST: It’s my understanding that scientists have concluded that the asteroid poses no threat to Planet Earth. I never really thought I’d be standing up here saying that. (Laughter.) But I guess I am. So since it doesn’t pose a threat to Planet Earth, I’m not sure it necessitated a briefing to the President.
The discussion the reporter referred to was the “We the Geeks” Google+ hangout held Friday afternoon that featured, among others, NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver and Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye, and hosted by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The announcement of the discussion noted that the administration’s 2014 budget proposal “calls for increased efforts by NASA to detect and mitigate potentially hazardous asteroids,” which the reporter then pressed Earnest about:
Q Does the President have any views about spending more resources on what your website calls “hazard mitigation” in respect to asteroids?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not aware of that reference. I know that the President does believe that scientific exploration and that the study of these kinds of asteroids is a worthwhile endeavor. And certainly we’re taking advantage of the opportunity — maybe there’s a spike in interest in the asteroid to facilitate a discussion on matters related to space. So it should be an interesting discussion. I would encourage you to tune in if you’re interested. But I don’t know — I’m not aware of any details related to hazard mitigation.
Meanwhile, that asteroid initiative is the subject, in part, of the cover story of the latest issue of the conservative magazine The Weekly Standard, featuring a cartoon of a spacesuited President Obama planting an American flag—or, at least, attempting to plant a flag—on an asteroid. “Obama’s Asteroid”, by P. J. O’Rourke, sees the proposal as the latest evidence of the “decline of NASA” since the glory days of the 1960s, when even then it was a challenge to develop a compelling rationale for spaceflight. “President Obama’s space entree is the same serving of vagaries, hold the pizzazz” as a half-century ago, he concludes.
O’Rourke is not moved by arguments for going to an asteroid for the sake of planetary defense. “Threat? Destruction of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk,” he writes. “Opportunity? Destruction of the Russian city of Chelyabinsk.”
While O’Rourke is not enthused about asteroid missions, even for the sake of protecting the Earth, a more positive view of the administration’s asteroid initiative comes from Frank DiBello, president of Space Florida. In an op-ed in the Orlando Sentinel, DiBello describes the various scientific and technical benefits of an asteroid retrieval mission. “[I]t will result in more launches, and sooner, of American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit,” he writes, “and it shrewdly taps into a growing public and scientific interest in near-Earth objects and planetary defense.”
DiBello also brings up another issue, though: property rights in space. Before private investment in space “can begin returning profits, paying taxes, and generating American jobs, the sticky issue of property rights in space will need to be addressed,” he writes. “This asteroid strategy enables this issue to come to the attention of the international community sooner rather than later. If the U.S., or a consortium of nations under our leadership, moves an asteroid from one location to another, how is it not now our property?” Space lawyers may have their own opinions, though…