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NASA's NEO Suppression Policy is Bad Science

YOWUSA.COM, 21-April-01
Marshall Masters

On January 28, 1986 the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated before our eyes.  It was a dark day for America, and we soon learned how it happened.  But, it was the why that really troubled us.  NASA managers had suppressed the warning of knowledgeable engineers because of political pressures on the agency.  In the same vein, NASA's present 72-suppression policy on new Near Earth Object (NEO) sighting announcements is equally wrong-headed, and equally dangerous!

NASA's 72-hour suppression policy has finally forced astronomers to think in terms of public relations.   Consequently, it has pushed them down the slippery slope of political correctness, towards the abyss of bad science. 

AP, April 15, 2001
Doom's day news protocol wanted

LOS ANGELES -- A group of scientists is seeking a standardized protocol for dealing with the possibility of an asteroid or comet striking the Earth, saying humans can do more than the dinosaurs ever could before a colossal impact precipitated their extinction 65 millions years ago. 

For now, word of a potential threat comes by way of a casual bulletin posted on the Internet that is invariably redistributed by the media. 

One expert said the flaps, while embarrassing, were an issue of public relations and not science. 

"These are problems in communication. They are not problems in the basics of what we're doing," said David Morrison, chairman of the International Astronomical Union's working group on NEOs. "The issue is really one of how do we communicate with the media and the public?"

The fundamental problem with impactors and public relations is that once the two issues are fused, astronomers must look over their shoulders before publishing their findings, to be sure they are in compliance with a "controlling authority." 

In most fields this would not matter as much, but when it comes to new NEO sightings the window of opportunity to observe new objects is often very brief and intermittent.  

For this reason, any restraint in the flow of sighting notices, regardless of how well intentioned that restraint, removes access to vital information away from independent astronomers, journalists and concerned citizens who monitor the Internet for new NEO discoveries.  

Now that NASA has fused astronomy and public relations into a whole new field of science, where will the NEO discovery information go?

At first it will go to a well-intentioned government, who will then release that information on a need to know basis.  However, power corrupts and eventually this knowledge will become the private domain of secretive cabals professing altruistic motives. 

The simple fact remains: Any restraint of the free and organic flow of NEO sightings between astronomers represents a space shuttle Challenger-class possibility for catastrophe. 

This is why famous astronomers like Dr. Brian Marsden, Associate Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatories, was recently quoted on a PAX TV program as saying, "Quite frankly, I think NASA's (72-hour suppression) policy is dangerous" in a PAX TV interview.  This is a pretty gutsy public statement from a fellow who must make nice with NASA on an ongoing basis.

Nonetheless, does NASA really have our best interests at heart, and do astronomers like Brian Marsden represent a small handful of disaffected loners barking at the moon?  

Reasons For Suppressing NEO Sightings

When NASA implemented its NEO suppression policy in 1998, they reserved to themselves the exclusive ability to withhold critical sighting information from independent astronomers for a period of 72 hours.  After this arbitrary time period, NASA assures us that it will release the information to the public (including other astronomers) according to NASA's own self-imposed rules. 

The obvious reasons for this suppression policy are:

  1. Ensure accurate findings
  2. Prevent misleading press reports
  3. Prevent unnecessary NEO panics

At face value, these reasons seem logical, necessary and well intentioned.  But are they -- really?

Suppression Ensures Accurate Findings

Until 1998, the accepted practice amongst ALL astronomers who spotted new asteroids and comets was to immediately publish their findings via the Internet, so other independent observers could make their own observations in a timely manner.  The more sightings, the more precise the calculations are when determining where the NEO is headed. 

For this reason, NASA's NEO suppression policy is a debilitating setback for astronomers because it suppresses vital sighting information during an optimal observation period. 

But doesn't it stand to reason that 72 hours is a small price to pay for accuracy? 

Not really when you consider that NASA has never been able to accurately forecast with 100% certainty the behavior of any NEO on the first pass.  Yet, when NASA makes a mistake, they euphemistically blame it on faulty calculations based on insufficient data and all is forgiven. 

On the flip side, NASA is far less generous with those outside of their direct control who err, and personal attacks are not uncommon.  But given that independent astronomers make the majority of new NEO discoveries, why should NASA have so much influence anyway?

The Long Reach of NASA

In the field of astronomy, NASA is the dog that wags the tail.  If independent astronomers challenge NASA's policies, they could put the funding of their own projects on the line. 

This is because when is comes to funding issues, NASA (and those who fund and control NASA) posses the largest bag of sticks and carrots in the scientific world. Therefore, angering them is too dear a price for most independent astronomers to pay, except those with enough political and financial juice to survive the consequences.

In the final analysis, there are three ways to ensure accurate findings.

  • The wrong way
  • The right way
  • The NASA way 

The wrong way is not to look at all.  The right way is to look and to report findings in a freely accessible forum that addresses the organic needs of astronomers without external political pressures.  And, the NASA way is to subjugate the needs of the science to the political needs of those who fund and control NASA, and who disdain the glare of news television camera lights.    

Suppression Prevents Misleading Press Reports

Is the media at fault for NASA's clamp down?  To a small degree yes, as they generally do love to sensationalize NEO threats. 

The problem here is that the common man is vaguely aware but largely unconcerned about the threat of impactors, despite a species-wide fear of asteroids and comets.  This is why irresponsible journalists sensationalize an impact threats. They know they can hit a big nerve and thereby sell soap for their network's corporate masters.   

Make no mistake about it; selling soap is what modern journalism is all about.  But as with all things, there are the good and the bad and not all of the media is wholly irresponsible.  

Despite all its faults, a free media (including small Internet news and opinion sites) are the only front line defense for the common man, and with good reason.  If an NEO is about to hit us, those who know this early on will be more likely to survive than those who learn later. 

Suppression Prevents Unnecessary NEO Panics

Outside of astronomers and researchers, who really cares to learn about impactors?  The sad fact is that the majority of outside observers have a keen interest in using comets and asteroids to validate a secular or non-secular belief or prediction. Unfortunately, this leaves a smaller minority of people who have an unbiased and genuine concern for the future of mankind. 

Combine all these together, and you've got a drop in the bucket when compared with the vast majority of Americans who'd rather keep their heads firmly planted in the sand with regards to the threat of impactors.  Some of the nave notions critics use to pile on the sand include:

  • We could hit them with our ICBM nukes. 

    The fact is that our ICBM's were designed to destroy countries not impactors!  Even the U.S. Space Command will tell you that they presently have no way of destroying impactors. 

  • We've never seen anyone killed by an impact event so why get worked up? 

    Fair enough, but we have seen people killed in automobile accidents and so we buckle up because we know we have a one in ten thousand chance of dying in an automobile accident. Interestingly enough, the statistical threat of dying as the result of an impact event is also one in ten thousand. 

  • Our government is doing everything it can. 

    This is the saddest part, because it is the cruelest lie.  A fast food restaurant has a bigger staff, than the one paid by the U.S. government to find potential impactors. 

Mankind currently possess the technology needed to build a planetary defense shield, but our government spends a pittance on this, and they will continue to do so until the American people get their heads out of the sand and demand action.  But that will not happen as long as the public is blissfully ignorant, and the government knows this.

The Giggle Factor

One of the reasons that the government is using to control NEO sightings is to avoid public apathy as a result of too many false reports.  They want to prevent the giggle factor of cry wolf sightings.  This is an outright lie!

Granted, the scandalous reports by irresponsible journalists are disservice to science in general and to NASA in specific.  However, they do serve a very important function in that these reports stimulate public controversy and debate.

The cry wolf assumption of public apathy is an absurd and specious reason for controlling this information because every human knows to the core of his or her own genetic code that impact events kill.  We can always hide from the truth, but each of us instinctively knows that we can never run from it.

Even if reports are scandalous, the more they happen the more we will find it more difficult to hide from the truth that NASA is giving us a token effort, and now using a 72-hour suppression policy to hid its own inadequacies.  This is what the government is truly afraid of us knowing!

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