Secrecy News

NASA Tries, Fails to Withhold Planetary Defense Report

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration earlier this year attempted to block public access to a comprehensive report on planetary defense against asteroids, but the document found its way into the public domain anyway.

NASA undertook the study in response to a 2005 Congressional mandate “to provide an analysis of alternatives to detect, track, catalogue, and characterize” potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs) and to submit “an analysis of possible alternatives that NASA could employ to divert an object on a likely collision course with Earth.”

An abbreviated version (28 pages, pdf) of the resulting report, which generally recommended against initiation of a new planetary defense program, was provided to Congress and the public in March 2007.

Strangely, however, NASA sought to prevent public disclosure of the full 272-page report that provided the underlying analysis for NASA’s conclusions.

To prevent uncontrolled dissemination, NASA did not distribute a soft copy version of the report. And altogether, no more than around 100 copies of the hard copy document were published.

Public requests for the document were denied, though it is unclassified.

“The document you requested was distributed in hard copy as a ‘thank you’ to [NASA working group] team members and is not an official, distributable NASA publication,” Marcus Shaw, a contractor at the NASA Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation, told Secrecy News.

“Copies beyond those for the study team are not available. An electronic copy will not be distributed or posted by NASA,” he wrote in a March 13 email from NASA headquarters.

In fact, however, the report is clearly marked as a NASA product and is presumptively subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

A legal challenge proved unnecessary, however, as the report soon leaked out through unauthorized channels.

It was obtained by the private B612 Foundation, an organization that advocates a more pro-active planetary defense program. (“Our goal is to significantly alter the orbit of an asteroid in a controlled manner by 2015.”)

The full document (in a large 23 MB PDF file) was posted this month, along with the organization’s technical critique of NASA’s analysis, here.

B612 is the asteroid home of Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince.

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