Episode 42: Tom Jones discusses defending Earth against the threat of asteroids

// Jul 18, 2017

Frequent STEM-Talk listeners will more than likely recognize today’s guest, veteran NASA astronaut Tom Jones, who joins us today to talk about the threat of near-Earth asteroids.

Tom occasionally helps co-host STEM-Talk. But for episode 42, regular co-hosts Ken Ford and Dawn Kernagis turn the microphone around to interview Tom about his days as an astronaut, planetary defense and asteroids.

It’s a topic, as you will hear, that Tom is quite passionate about.  He also has a great deal of expertise in the field. Before he became an astronaut, Tom earned a doctorate in planetary science from the University of Arizona in 1988. He’s also a graduate of the United States Airforce Academy. His research interests range from the remote sensing of asteroids to meteorite spectroscopy to applications of space resources.

He became an astronaut in 1991 and received the NASA Space Flight Medal in 1994, 1996, and 2001. He also received the NASA Exceptional Service Award in 1997 and again in 2000. In 1995, he received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.

Tom logged 52 days in space, including three space walks totaling more than 19 hours. He is the author of several books, including Sky Walking: An Astronauts Memoir, which the Wall Street Journal named as one of the five best books about space. His latest book is Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions about Space.

Below are links to Tom’s books as wells the STEM-Talk interview with Pascal Lee, which Ken refers to while interviewing Tom.


Pascal Lee interview:

New Yorker article:

TFPD Report:

Tom Jones books:

“Sky Walking” –

“Ask the Astronaut” –

“Complete Idiots Guide to NASA” –

“Planetology” –

Show notes:

3:36: Ken and Dawn welcome Tom to the show.

4:11: Ken comments on the interesting path that Tom has travelled throughout his life and asks Tom to give a synopsis of his path of reinvention.

6:56: Dawn asks Tom to talk about the goals and highlights of the four shuttle missions he went on.

3:39: Dawn welcomes Tom as a guest on STEM-Talk.

9:23: Dawn comments on how Tom no longer flies in space, but he and some of his colleagues are now involved in another space mission that could save the Earth or a large part of it from destruction. Dawn then asks Tom how he became interested in planetary defense from asteroids.

11:30: Ken asks Tom to explain the differences between asteroids, comets, meteoroids, meteors, and meteorites.

13:37: Ken asks Tom how he would define a near-earth asteroid.

14:06: Dawn asks Tom how frequently asteroids strike the Earth.

16:27: Dawn asks Tom how likely she is to die in an asteroid catastrophe, statistically speaking.

18:27: Dawn discusses an article on planetary defense titled, Vermin of the Sky, published in The New Yorker in February of 2011. She comments on how Ken is quoted in the article as saying, “The very short perspective we have as humans makes the threat of asteroids seem smaller than it is. People of all sorts find it easier to kick the can down the road and hope for a mystical solution.”

20:04: Ken comments on how in the same article Clark Chapman notes that “Unlike Hurricane Katrina, we can do something about an asteroid, the question is whether we would rather be wrong in overprotecting or wrong in under protecting”. Ken then points out that one can imagine a near societal collapse should it be announced that, with high confidence, an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, and that as a society we have no means to deflect it. Humans, Ken adds, would come to envy the dinosaurs who had no time to ruminate about their fate. Ken asks Tom if he can even imagine the societal disruption of such an announcement.

21:50: Dawn discusses how in January of this year the U.S. Government released a strategy for preparing for a Near-Earth Object (NEO) impact. She then asks Tom if he thinks the strategy is on the right track.

23:29: Dawn asks Tom to give a sense of how NASA deals with the asteroid hazard today.

25:04: Dawn asks Tom if he thinks that as NASA’s interests in asteroids has increased, if it is striking the right balance between science, exploration, and planetary defense.

26:59: Ken discusses how Tom and Rusty Schweickart co-chaired the NASA Advisory Council’s Ad Hoc Task Force on planetary defense, and how in October of 2010, their task force made five primary recommendations. Ken asks Tom to review them and briefly discuss what has transpired in the years since in a lightning round. Recommendation number one: organize for effective action on planetary defense.

28:17: Recommendation number two: acquire essential search, track, and warning capabilities.

29:10: Recommendation number three: investigate the nature of the impact threat.

29:41: Recommendation number four: prepare to respond to impact threats.

30:39: Recommendation number five: lead U.S. planetary defense effort in national and international forms.

32:05: Ken praises Tom on the successful lightning round.

32:08: Dawn asks Tom what the current score card is on our detection of NEOs and how the percentage of the NEO population discovered is.

33:49: Dawn asks Tom why we do not get more notice of the approaching objects.

34:53: Dawn comments on how Tom talked about the limitations of the ground-based detection. She then asks Tom to discuss why ground-based detection has these limitations.

36:10: Dawn asks Tom to talk about some of the cons of these space-based detection missions and whether or not there are solutions to these cons.


38:42: Dawn asks Tom what we learned from the Chelyabinsk impact in 2013.

40:36: Dawn asks Tom how much it will cost to deal with the asteroid threat effectively.

41:55: Ken comments that clearly these relatively modest preventive costs would be entirely dwarfed by several orders of magnitude for any significant impact on Earth in a populated area.

42:57: Ken states that to put it in perspective, the initial annual cost estimated in the report is essentially the cost of a single, frontline jet fighter.

43:27: Dawn discusses Tom’s role as a science advisor for the B612 Foundation that is now creating a new asteroid institute at the University of Washington. She then asks Tom what his take is on the new activities that this institute will be enabling, aside from searching for NEOs.

45:05: Dawn comments on how Tom is associated with the Association of Space Explorers and asks why they are interested in planetary defense.

46:16: Ken asks Tom to imagine that we have detected an NEO that seems to be on a collision course with Earth. He then asks Tom to review the leading proposed ideas on how humanity might deflect it sufficiently for it to actually miss the Earth.

49:45: Ken asks Tom if once we divert an asteroid collision whether or not it is gone for good. More specifically, how we can prevent an asteroid on its elliptical orbit from passing through a gravitational keyhole and returning to threaten Earth again.

52:37: Dawn comments on how ESA and NASA have been discussing a joint-asteroid deflection demonstration mission. She then asks Tom what the prospects are for that mission.

54:36: Dawn asks Tom if he thinks that the UN is the best organization to plan for a public safety hazard of this magnitude.

56:32: Ken asks Tom to talk about the natural uncertainty associated with projecting the exact place of impact on Earth and the implications for planning a deflection mission.

59:30: Dawn asks why it is that the topic of NEOs seems to fly under the radar and be of so little interest in comparison to other threats of much less gravity.

1:01:20: Ken comments on how he believes that this topic suffers from the sky is falling syndrome, evoking the story of Chicken Little. Also, that political leaders tend to think in terms of best election cycles and that it is hard to get them excited about potentially cataclysmic events that are nearly certain to happen in the long run.

1:02:50: Dawn discusses how NASA’s 2017 budget eliminates funding for the asteroid redirect mission, which is to return a boulder from a Near-Earth Asteroid and put it on the moon. She then asks Tom if this cancellation affects our planetary defense efforts in any real sense.

1:04:10: Dawn asks Tom how we can use Near-Earth Asteroids and their resources to aid our human space flight exploration efforts.

1:05:13: Ken comments on how he finds Phobos and Deimos, moons of Mars, absolutely fascinating. He goes on to state that these may in fact be asteroids. He then asks Tom to talk about Phobos and Deimos and why they are of such great interest.

1:07:56: Ken recommends that the listeners interested in Phobos and Deimos check out an earlier STEM-Talk podcast with Pascal Lee. (See link above.)

1:08:14: Ken asks Tom what he sees as the role and timing of the lunar activity in the larger scheme of human space exploration.

1:09:53: Ken asks Tom what he sees as the best way for government to conduct its programs so as to help enable the success of commercial space products and service providers without directly subsidizing them.

1:11:39: Dawn comments on how Tom has had a very impressive career path and asks him what advice he would give to others who would like to someday work in space or explore the solar system.

1:14:03: Dawn discusses the four books Tom has written on space flight: “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to NAS;” “Sky Walking: An Astronauts Memoir;” “Planetology: Unlocking the Secrets of the Solar System,” and “Ask the Astronaut: A Galaxy of Astonishing Answers to Your Questions about Space Flight.”

1:15:23: Dawn asks Tom if he deals with the asteroid hazard or planetary defense in any of these books.

1:16:19: Ken comments that Tom should heavily distribute The Complete Idiot’s Guide to NASA in certain quarters of D.C.

1:16:46: Dawn asks Tom what other interests he pursues in addition to space.

1:17:31: Ken and Dawn thank Tom for joining them.