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How NASA Is Democratizing Its Quest to Wrangle an Asteroid

NASA is launching an effort to bring space power back to the people.
September 5, 2014, 4:20pm
Image: NASA

When Gravity picked up numerous honors at last year's Academy Awards, not one single person who accepted those awards bothered to thank the real-life astronauts who actually hang out inside the International Space Station. It was a mere symptom of a larger cultural trend—when it comes to actual space science, contemporary mainstream American culture is largely apathetic. So what can NASA do to get us excited? They've got some ideas, and have set about launching an effort to bring space power back to the people.

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Aware of a "democracy gap," between regular people and what is simply one more government agency, NASA, under the leadership of Lead Technologist Jason Kessler, has been revitalizing its approach to what can be called "citizen science." Contemporary public forums (both online and IRL) have focused primarily on NASA's Asteroid Initiative; the ongoing project to wrangle a NEA (Near Earth Asteroid) closer to our orbit in an effort to learn more about them, and bolster planetary protection.

Last year, in an October 2013 public presentation, Kessler spoke to the goals of the Asteroid Initiative, saying it was "bigger than NASA's ability to do on its own," and emphasized the need for NASA to "engage with communities we don't normally talk with."

One specific example Kessler cited was when glaciologists were able to make a breakthrough on dark matter as it related to asteroids. Someone who knows a whole lot about glaciers advising NASA about asteroids might sound like cheese experts helping guide the Apollo astronauts to the Moon. But now, NASA doesn't see it that way. If a cheese expert does end up knowing something about the Moon or asteroids, NASA is totally listening.

the fact that NASA wants to consult amateurs, and pay them at all, is meaningful, and perhaps unprecedented

And it's about time. In a comprehensive 2007 survey conducted by NASA, it was determined that 50 percent of people surveyed had heard of NASA in the news primarily in connection with the infamous love triangle scandal. Another 22 percent of people said they knew about "general mission info," while 7 percent used the word "problems." And while the Curiosity Rover got a lot of people excited in 2012, an inordinate amount of press seemed to focus on flight director Bobak Ferdowsi's starry mohawk.

So, should NASA start focusing on hairstyles to gain popular support? Or to put it another way, if no one cares about NASA, but they're getting the job done, then is our apathy actually problem?

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Historically, there does seem to be a correlation between general hopefulness and a healthy space program. A 1986 research document from the National Space Society gives a very different sampling of attitudes about space travel than what we might feel today. In a town-hall style meeting, astronomers voiced optimism about achieving global unity through space travel and the prospect of "free men and women stepping foot on Mars in 2010." These days, that sort of large-scale optimism is found mostly in the private sector.

NASA

One could argue that science fiction plays an important role in firing people up about space, and that 1986 was smack in the middle of the old-school Star Trek days, when sci-fi stuff was more about exploring outer space than killing bad guys. But we can't blame space apathy on today's dumbed-down Star Trek movies, at least not entirely. And NASA agrees. Which is why they're now reaching out in a way they never have quite done before.

And if those early asteroid wrangling public forums can be considered something of a warm-up; NASA is getting real and literally putting its money where its outer-space mouth is. Last week, just before Labor Day, NASA announced a collaboration with non-government organization; ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology). To be fair, these types of public forums, are, at a glance, nothing new, but NASA and ECAST have never officially joined forces quite like this.

If NASA and ECAST were kids sitting next to you in 4th grade and passed you a note that read "do you like asteroids? Check yes or no" what would you say? Because this Fall, in regard to the, Asteroid Initiative, that's what they're doing. There will be two conferences, one in Phoenix on November 8th and one in Boston on November 15th.

This isn't something where random people are walking up to a microphone. Instead, there's an application process involved, but if you're approved, there's a stipend. Could the NASA version of Walter White be out there somewhere, slaving away in his classroom with some good ideas for catching asteroids? If so, these two conferences could be that person's chance to change space travel. Sure, it's only $100, but the fact that NASA wants to consult "amateurs," and pay them at all, is meaningful and perhaps unprecedented.

As last week's press release from NASA and ECAST says, this "Sounds like stuff just for rocket scientists. But how would you like to be part of this discussion?" If we're going to get jazzed about space again, in a way that doesn't rely on mohawks or Star Trek (both of which are wonderful things, by the way) then the right stuff probably has to come from within NASA, and, regular people, too.