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NASA, ASU partner to engage citizens in space exploration

Astronaut taking a sample from an asteroid
August 27, 2014

In its history, the Earth has been repeatedly struck by asteroids – large chunks of rock from space that can cause considerable damage in a collision. Can we, or should we, try to protect Earth from potentially hazardous impacts?

How about harvesting asteroids for potential economic benefits? What do we do if we find an asteroid that threatens Earth? How should we balance costs, risks and benefits of human exploration in space?

Sounds like questions for rocket scientists. But how would you like to be part of this discussion?

An innovative project between NASA and a group led by Arizona State University called ECAST (Expert and Citizen Assessment of Science and Technology) is planning to do just that: give ordinary citizens a voice in the future of space exploration.

The “Informing NASA’s Asteroid Initiative” project will hold forums this fall to engage ordinary citizens in active dialogue about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. Discussion will cover such topics as planetary defense strategies, how to detect threatening asteroids and why the exploration of asteroids is part of the future of human space exploration.

“Public engagement is crucial to the effective development of science and technology policy,” said David Guston, co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes (CSPO), one of the founding members of ECAST. “It is essential to consider input from diverse constituents, and nowhere are citizens’ values, hopes and dreams more important than in the future of the planet and the future of humans in space.”

The citizen forums will engage diverse publics in respectful, reflective and informed conversations, both face-to-face and online. The goal is to enable participants to learn about such issues, develop their own questions and make recommendations based on their own values and interests.

Jason Kessler, Asteroid Grand Challenge and LAUNCH Program executive at NASA, said "These forums are a direct result of the Asteroid Initiative Request for Information process – ECAST submitted a proposal that was highly ranked and well received at the 2013 Asteroid Initiative Workshop. This is the next step in public engagement, allowing us to directly engage in a meaningful two-way dialogue and provide valuable insight for continued planning of the Asteroid Initiative."&

ECAST is a network of different institutions, launched in 2010 to provide a 21st century model for technology assessment. It combines the research strengths of universities like ASU with the skills of nonpartisan policy research organizations, and the education and outreach capabilities of science museums and citizen science programs.

“Science museums have a long history of making complex science topics interesting and accessible to public audiences. With the help of our ECAST partners, we’ve developed the techniques to give lay publics the opportunity to consider the societal impacts of scientific and technological advances, and to share their views with the experts. We are excited to be able to do this for NASA’s Asteroid Initiative,” said Larry Bell, senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Three of the five ECAST founding partners, the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU, the Museum of Science, Boston and are working with NASA to design, convene and evaluate citizen forums in Phoenix and Boston, and also online. The in-person forums will each comprise about 100 demographically diverse participants selected to be representative of the two geographies. The online forum will be open to all, and representative of diverse geographies. The report and assessments from the forums will provide input to the asteroid initiative and ideas for future asteroid-related public engagement activities.

"Citizen science connects people with varied interests ... to engage in civic and science activities," said Darlene Cavalier, founder of SciStarter. "With NASA's Asteroid Initiative, we are expanding the scope of citizen science to also empower people who want to be part of conversations and developments shaping science, technology and related policy.”

For more information on the project or to sign up to receive updates visit