How Would You Defend the Planet From Asteroids?
When NASA collaborated with social scientists to engage the public in two-way conversations about the agency’s Asteroid Initiative, the outcome surprised everyone.
On September 26, 2022, NASA successfully smashed a spacecraft into a tiny asteroid named Dimorphos, altering its orbit. Although it was 6.8 million miles from Earth, the Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) was broadcast in real time, turning the impact into a rare pan-planetary moment accessible from smartphones around the world.
For most people, the DART mission was the first glimmer—outside of the movies—that NASA was seriously exploring how to protect Earth from asteroids. Rightly famous for its technological prowess, NASA is less recognized for its social innovations. But nearly a decade before DART, the agency had launched the Asteroid Grand Challenge. In a pioneering approach to public engagement, the challenge brought citizens together to weigh in on how the taxpayer-funded agency might approach some technical decisions involving asteroids.
The following account of how citizens came to engage with strategies for planetary defense—and the unexpected conclusions they reached—is based on the experiences of NASA employees, members of the Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology (ECAST) network, and forum participants.
Visit Issues in Science & Technology to read the oral history of ECAST’s participatory technology assessment of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative.