George Brown was first elected to the Congress in 1962. For many years he chaired the Committee on Science and Technology in the House, and at the time of his death he was the ranking Democrat on the Committee. He held a degree in physics from the University of California at Los Angeles, and he often described himself as a scientist (one of very few in the Congress).
In addition to his broad support over many years of scientific research and space exploration, George Brown took a very real personal interest in the NEO impact hazard. Under his leadership, the Congress first asked NASA to study this issue in 1991, leading to the Spaceguard Report of 1992. After the 1994 impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 into Jupiter, his Committee challenged NASA to accelerarate plans for Spaceguard and to develop a program plan to find 90% of NEOs larger than 1 km within a decade. We will all miss his support and friendship.
Following are the remarks made by Mr. Brown at the 1993 Congressional hearings on the NEO impact hazard, as well as the key language from his Committee that defined the program that we now call Spaceguard.
Introductory statement by Mr. Brown:
For Members [of Congress] who are hearing about this subject [the impact threat] for the first time, I know that the tendency is to be somewhat skeptical. And, one could certainly ask why this subject should be of interest to the Congress? None of our friends, relatives, or constituents have ever been killed by an asteroid. It has probably been hundreds of thousands of years since the last time a really big asteroid hit the Earth.
I think it is the duty of the Congress to provide periodic oversight of all matters that relate to the health and welfare of the citizens of this country. This is particularly true for issues where Congressional oversight might spur the Administration forward to taking some appropriate action. I believe that the topic of Earth-threatening asteroids is just such an issue.
I hope that [these hearings] will help create increasing awareness of this issue within the international astronomical community. Indeed, the problem of a potential large asteroid strike is not just a U.S.problem; it is a worldwide problem. I believe that all industrialized nations of the Earth should cooperate on a program to discover and track the large asteroids that can pose a serious threat to our home planet.
[Today] the emerging scientific consensus seems to be that it is no longer a question "If the Earth will again be hit with a large asteroid?; the question is now "When will the Earth again be hit by a large asteroid?"
If we invest the time and resources to find these things, we can remove the guesswork. We will know ahead of time when we are at risk, so that we can take appropriate actions to deflect the threatening asteroids years in advance.
I believe that the initiatives we are now getting underway to deal with this issue in a thorough and scientific manner have the potential for being one of the most important things that mankind has ever done.
If some day in the future we discover well in advance that an asteroid that is big enough to cause a mass extinction is going to hit the Earth, and then we alter the course of that asteroid so that it does not hit us, it will be one of the most important accomplishments in all of human history.
The chances of the Earth being struck by a large asteroid are extremely small, but since the consequences of such a collision are extremely large, the Committee believes it is only prudent to assess the nature of the threat and prepare to deal with it. We have the technology to detect such asteroids and to prevent their collision with the Earth.
The Committee therefore directs that NASA undertake two workshop studies. The first would define a program for dramatically increasing the detection rate of Earth-orbit-crossing asteroids; this study would address the costs, schedule, technology, and equipment required for precise definition of the orbits of such bodies. The second study would define systems and technologies to alter the orbits of such asteroids or to destroy them if they should pose a danger to life on Earth. The Committee recommends international participation in these studies and suggests that they be conducted within a year of the passage of this legislation.
Catalogue of Earth-Threatening Comets and Asteroids
(a) Requirement -- To the extent practicable, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in coordination with the Department of Defense and the space agencies of other countries, shall identify and catalogue within 10 years the orbital characteristics of all comets and asteroids that are greater than 1 km in diameter and are in an orbit around the sun that crosses the orbit of the Earth.