K Street lobbyists leap to the planet’s defense after asteroid scare

Asteroids will no longer be safe, now that lobbyists have them in their sights. 

The commercial asteroid-mining company Planetary Resources has hired K&L Gates to represent it in Washington, with an eye on new opportunities — including, perhaps, the chance to defend life on Earth.

Lobbyists for the company will be closely tracking Congress, which is buzzing about celestial threats following February’s close encounter with a 150-foot-wide asteroid that came within 17,200 miles of hitting the planet.

Planetary Resources believes the “low-cost robotic” technology that it’s developing to explore asteroids and bring back materials could also help support efforts to deflect threats from space.

It might sound like a Hollywood fantasy, but lobbyists for the company says it’s anything but.

“Some people think of this as some sort of Buck Rogers-type effort, that it’s science fiction. It’s not science fiction,” said former Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), a lobbyist at K&L Gates. “If you said in 1960 that we are going to the moon in 10 years, people would have looked at you like you were loony. But obviously we did.”

Gordon, a former House Science Committee chairman who served in Congress for 26 years, is part of a four-person lobbying team for Planetary Resources that includes Daniel Ritter, Stephen Roberts and Paul Stimers, according to the lobbying registration from K&L Gates.

The lobbyists have begun gathering information about Washington’s efforts to track asteroids, according to Gordon.

“This is just the start of a process. This is just gathering information, seeing what public information and research is out there so they can incorporate that into their understanding,” Gordon said. “They are not coming here looking for federal dollars.”

Scientists say the threat to Earth from space is very real. They estimate that 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids travel close to Earth, bringing with them the potential for massive destruction.   

The potential for loss of life was made plain in February, when a meteor entered Earth’s atmosphere and exploded over Russia, shattering windows and injuring more than 1,000 people. At up to 55 feet, NASA said it was the largest reported meteor since 1908.

“You just become a little bit startled and frightened about how many asteroids are out there and so few are being tracked,” Gordon said. “The odds just keep growing that there could be a problem in the future.”

Congress is taking the threat seriously.

On March 19, the House Science Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the government’s effort to identify and deflect asteroids. They’ll hear testimony from John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Gen. William Shelton, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command; and NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), vice chairman of the House Science Committee, has called the Russian meteor strike “a wake-up call” for policymakers.

“We have been spending millions to find and track asteroids and comets, but the indications are that this one was so small that we aren’t even looking for objects of this size. What concerns me even more, however, is the fact that we have no plan that can protect the Earth from any comet or asteroid,” Rohrabacher said in a statement on Feb. 15.

Lawmakers have already taken steps to address the nation’s space defenses. In the NASA Authorization Acts of 2000 and 2005, the agency was directed to find out how many Near-Earth Objects there are and research plans on how to deflect them.

Planetary Resources’s main objective is to mine asteroids for rare metals, but the company believes it might be able to help with detecting space objects as well.

“It just so happens for them to accomplish this commercial venture, there will be some good public-policy byproducts,” Gordon said.

The company intends to manufacture robotic spacecraft that can explore asteroids, and is also building space telescopes that can spot them. That work could help develop the needed infrastructure to identify and deflect the space rocks, according to the firm.

The mining company has some big names attached to it. Director James Cameron and Ret. Gen. T. General Michael Moseley, the former chief of staff for the U.S. Air Force, are among its advisers, and investors include Larry Page, Google’s CEO, and Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chairman.

Google also has ties to the B612 Foundation, another group that warns of asteroid threats.

Ed Lu, a former NASA astronaut who led the advanced projects group for Google, is the B612 Foundation’s chairman and CEO. The foundation wants to launch an infrared space telescope to orbit around the sun to track asteroids that could threaten Earth.

Space lobbying is becoming a profitable niche for many firms on K Street.

K&L Gates has other clients that delve into the final frontier. Last year, the firm lobbied for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, the trade group for commercial spaceflight, and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, a spacecraft company.

Both have outside firms as well as their own in-house lobbyists. SpaceX spent more than $1 million on lobbying in 2012, while the federation spent $80,000 in that same year, according to records. 

Space can become serious business for the private sector. Gordon said Planetary Resources shouldn’t be discounted.

“We all should be rooting for these guys,” he said.