From the Chief of Space Policy
I am fresh from Vienna, having returned from the Planetary Defense Conference, a biennial gathering of scientists, policy experts, and disaster management officials. It’s always a fascinating gathering, but this year was unique. For the first time ever, we had real data to discuss! DART’s impact — both literal and figurative — dominated the event.
I was struck by the change in fortunes for planetary defense. The DART mission pushed planetary defense across a threshold of viability. NEO Surveyor is in development at NASA. Japan, China, New Zealand, and other nations are all expanding planetary defense activities. The European Space Agency, in particular, is making serious investments with Hera, a spacecraft that will observe the impact crater made by DART, to be followed by NEOMIR, an asteroid-hunting space telescope designed to complement NEO Surveyor.
I’m fascinated by these developments. Fifteen years ago, NASA spent less on planetary defense than it did on employee travel. This year NASA will spend close to $150 million — growth of more than 4,000%.
This is all the more strange when you notice that the arguments for investment in planetary defense have not changed in decades; we’ve all known that getting hit by a large asteroid would be bad. So what changed?
There are a number of factors, but I believe that planetary defense, as a wholly modern activity, had to bootstrap itself within the existing bureaucracy to gain traction by aligning itself with other initiatives. In essence, saving humanity wasn’t enough; planetary defense had to provide a short-term utility to gain funding.
This is the topic of the paper I presented at the conference, an example of the type of original policy research we’re doing here at The Planetary Society that we hope will assist other nations and space agencies in securing their own investments into this critical field.
Planetary defense is an example of the global policy apparatus working as designed — new information is incorporated into the decision-making system, scientists are listened to, and resources are now being allocated to help stave off an existential threat to the long-term endurance of our civilization. If that’s not a hopeful sign for the world, I don’t know what is.
Until next time,
Chief of Space Policy
The Planetary Society
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Space Policy Highlights
New Planetary Defense Strategy Outlines Key US Government Goals (whitehouse.gov) "Less than half of NEOs capable of serious damage on Earth have been catalogued. That’s why the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is releasing [an updated] National Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan for Near-Earth Object Hazards and Planetary Defense."
Read the full report (PDF).
European advisory group calls for space autonomy, European-led lunar landings (spacepolicyoneline.com) "[A new] report calls on ESA to develop a plan before ESA’s 2023 Space Summit in November for a 'transformation and invigoration' of the space ecosystem in Europe. That includes a 'scenario for independent and sustainable European human landing on the Moon within 10 years' and 'proposals for visionary and transformative European flagship projects in space for the 2030s and beyond.'"
NASA warns of “devastating” impacts of potential budget cuts (spacenews.com) "NASA Administrator Bill Nelson claims proposed spending reductions for fiscal year 2024 could have 'devastating and potentially unrecoverable' effects on NASA programs, delaying or canceling many missions...One scenario considered rolling back discretionary spending across the board to fiscal year 2022 levels, exempting defense spending from that cut, requiring deeper reductions for non-defense discretionary agencies. NASA estimated in that scenario its budget would be cut by 22%."
Planetary Society leads the charge to save NASA's VERITAS Venus mission (space.com) "The Planetary Society is taking a stand for NASA's stalled VERITAS mission to Venus. Responding to the White House's 2024 budget proposal for NASA that all but eliminated funding for VERITAS, the space advocacy organization has published an open letter to Congress requesting support for the Venus mission. The letter has been co-signed by the American Geophysical Union and leading academic institutions."
If you live in the U.S., write your member of Congress to support VERITAS.
Planetary Radio: Space Policy Edition
For over a decade, Jean Toal Eisen drafted legislation directing billions of dollars to NASA as senior staff on the Senate Appropriations Committee. She joins the show to unveil the crucial roles played by committee staff like herself, how decisions and priorities are made behind closed doors, and the motivations and drivers of the people who control the fates of billions of dollars of taxpayer funding for the U.S. space program.