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Defending Planet Earth: Near-Earth-Object Surveys and Hazard Mitigation Strategies
An effective, comprehensive approach to the NEO hazard will require significant planning, coordination, and cooperation within the U.S. government.
It seems sensible to assign responsibility for this NEO hazards program to an existing governmental administrative structure, especially in view of the likely relatively small size of the undertaking. It also seems more efficient to place the program under the control of a single entity in coordination with other relevant government organizations. The coordination could be implemented by way of a standing committee or an interagency task force of the appropriate agencies to organize and lead the effort to plan and coordinate any action to be taken by the United States individually, or in concert with other nations. This committee or task force would have membership from each of the relevant national agencies (NASA and the National Science Foundation [NSF]) and executive departments (Defense, Energy, Homeland Security, Justice, and State), with the chair from the lead entity. (Other relevant agencies and departments might include the Departments of Transportation and of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, the General Services Administration, and the Department of Agriculture.)
The first step of the standing committee or interagency task force would be to define the necessary roles and responsibilities of each member agency in addressing the various aspects of the threat, from surveying the sky through civil defense. The lead responsibility for a given task would be assigned to the appropriate agency or department.
In view of the intrinsic international nature of the program, a civilian rather than a military agency would have advantages for housing it. Otherwise, one could envision continual internal conflict over military security and classification issues. Of course, any group will have such issues from time to time, but a civilian group could have far fewer such conflicts and also would likely be more acceptable to its counterparts in other nations. In an emergency, the military could be enlisted or appointed by the president to help; the military would maintain currency with the issues through membership in the standing committee or interagency task force.
Among the civilian agencies and departments, NASA has the broadest and deepest familiarity with solar system objects and its associated rendezvous missions. The NSF supports ground-based solar system research, but it traditionally responds to proposals rather than initiating and organizing complex programs (the International Geophysical Year being one of the exceptions). The Departments of Defense and of Energy, however, have by far the most important experience with nuclear explosives, necessary for some active-defense missions for changing NEO orbits. For such missions and their preparations, these departments, or at least the latter, would certainly become involved, with coordination being maintained through the standing committee or task force described above.
NASA is a possible choice for the lead agency. Within NASA, under its present organization, a natural home for this hazards program would be the Science Mission Directorate (SMD), which deals with solar system science. The current, small hazards program—with an approximately $4 million annual budget—is already housed in this directorate. But the hazards program discussed here would be more effective with its own director and budgetary line item(s) to ensure its viability within the much larger SMD. It would, of course, derive benefits from and provide benefits to the science and other programs in the SMD.
Organization is also key when mitigation requires civil defense, primarily evacuation. Experience has driven home a lesson: Without prior training for it, evacuation has chaotic and often disastrous attributes. However, training from prior emergencies can yield very successful, almost trouble-free evacuation outcomes, at least in local areas. The “poster child” for such success is the evacuation of San Bernardino County, California, in the face of ferocious fires that attacked the region in the summer of 2007.
The National Response Framework in the DHS is the part of the national government that deals with civil defense. Responsibility for planning for emergencies is centered within it. The framework is especially concerned with the coordination of the numerous local, state, regional, national, and nongovernmental organizations that are or should be involved in disaster anticipation, management, and relief of all kinds. NEOs could be added to and considered explicitly in this framework and would thus become a part of the planning and implementation of the disaster response of the United States. Any needed legislation to achieve this goal could be linked to any national and international policies and structures dealing with disaster prevention and management. The underwriting and insurance industry might be interested in providing actuarial input relevant to these matters.