Planetoid crashing into Earth rendering (Donald Davis commissioned by NASA via Wikimedia Commons)





Jack Legg, District Judge

February 21, 2025

This case pits a powerful government bureaucracy (“NASA”) with a significant secular mission against a small group of sincere and devout believers in a minority faith (“the Church”). These simple pilgrims pray for an order of this Court enjoining NASA from continuing with preparations for its planned Operation Safeguard, whose scheduled launch is next week. The Church’s first claim arises under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as they allege that the planned launch will devastate their religious observance. That claim must regretfully be denied, as the Clause does not create a right to halt government operations with government property. See Northwest Indian Protective Association v. Lyng (Native Americans cannot halt roadbuilding on government-owned land despite catastrophic consequences for their religion because antecedent theft of their sacred land by the government means they are out of luck). However, the impact on the Church’s faith creates a concrete injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct; for this reason, the Church’s second claim, under the Supreme Court’s “Major Questions Doctrine,” will be permitted to challenge Operation Safeguard under developing principles of administrative law. That claim will be granted, and a permanent injunction will issue forthwith.


On January 1, 2024, the Center for Near Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) of defendant’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory detected at some distance from Earth a previously unknown asteroid whose path seemed to place it on a path that would collide with Earth on or about March 21, 2024. CNEOS notified the defendant’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), which is tasked with particularizing near-earth objects that pose a threat to Earth. Using its Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, now designated “NEOWISE,” PDCO confirmed the threatened impact. As a result, PDCO notified the Executive Office of the President of a serious threat of collision with Earth. Subsequent analyses by an inter-agency task force determined that the impact of the object (which had by then received the official scientific designation “Thanos666”) would, at a minimum, create widespread physical damage and mass casualties across the globe and that it carried a 74.689 percent chance of “obliterating all life, human, animal, or vegetable,” on the planet.

Accordingly, plans were set afoot to interfere with the asteroid’s natural orbit. Fortunately or unfortunately, defendant had the previous September conducted a successful test of its so-called Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft, which sent a rocket to a small asteroid named Dimorphos, itself a tiny moon of the slightly larger asteroid Didymos. On September 26, 2022, the spacecraft impacted Dimorphos. The force of the collision and that of associated debris from the spacecraft succeeded in shifting the orbit of Dimorphous to a significant degree.

After the detection of Thanos666, the defendant swung into action with a planned mission that, according to its own estimates, had “a 94.5 percent probability of avoiding any contact between Earth and Thanos, and a 100 percent probability of significantly reducing the scale of any impact that did result.” Preparation for that mission is nearly complete, and, as noted above, the launch is now scheduled for next Thursday.


At this point, the Church and its pastor sought the aid of this Court. In their Complaint, plaintiffs explain that the “central core” of their humble faith is a belief that the time has come for the promised Apocalypse. This event will involve the end of the Earth “as we know it,” the extinction of the human race “on the physical plane,” and the immortal survival of the souls of a “saving remnant,” which they estimate as “somewhere between 144 and 14,400,000 souls of the living and the dead.” For years, the Church and its devout members have prayed for the event that is now impending. Their complaint states that if NASA is permitted to carry out its mission, “humanity will lose its chance to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” and will dwell in “outer darkness where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth in perpetuity.”

Some may regard these beliefs as ill-informed or naïve; others, like the Court, may be moved by these adherents’ humility and sincerity. No matter which attitude is adopted, our Constitution protects these beliefs even against secular forces that label them as “harmful” or “dangerous.” See Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, (2014) (Alito, J.) (“Arrogating the authority to provide a binding national answer to this religious and philosophical question’ would be “in effect[to] tell the plaintiffs that their beliefs are flawed.”) The Constitution protects the unfashionable as well as the fashionable; the heartland worshiper as well as the urban agnostic; the humble yeomanry as well as the educated elite. The Court finds the Church’s belief sincere.

Nonetheless, as aforesaid, the Church cannot prevail on its Free Exercise claim because defendants are not asking them to engage in an activity to which they object or to refrain from an activity they claim a religious right to perform. To hold such a program to be a violation of the Clause would open the door to challenges of any governmental activity to which one or more believers object. Standing to bring a challenge to Operation Safeguard requires a more “concrete and particularized” injury, “fairly traceable” to the government action challenged, and “capable of being redressed by an order of the Court.”


In this case, even though the Free Exercise claim must fail, the Church’s injury satisfies all three requirements. It gives them standing to bring the second allegation of their complaint before the Court, namely, that Operation Safeguard exceeds NASA’s statutory authority. The Court will now proceed to examine this claim.

Like all government agencies, NASA is purely a creature of statute; no executive agency can exercise any power or fulfill any function not explicitly authorized by law. In this case, NASA’s enabling statute is the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, Pub. L. No. 85-568, as subsequently amended, codified at 51 U.S. Code § 20111 et seq. That statute clearly spells out the mission of the agency: NASA is to “plan, direct, and conduct aeronautical and space activities;”  “arrange for participation by the scientific community in planning scientific measurements and observations to be made through use of aeronautical and space vehicles, and conduct or arrange for the conduct of such measurements and observations”; ensure “the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information” about its activities; promote “the fullest commercial use of space;” and engage in “use of commercially provided space services and hardware.” Id.

The alert reader by now will have detected a glaring omission in this catalog of purposes, which might be stated as “preventing the destruction of all, or even almost all, life on earth by collision with an asteroid.” Congress has not explicitly granted NASA this power; the question for this Court is whether, despite this silence, the statute may plausibly be read to authorize such endeavors as Operation Safeguard.

Defendant insists that the Earth-saving mission is “implicit” in the agency’s statutory mission. After all, the agency argues, “one can hardly conduct activities, arrange for scientific participation, disseminate activities, or promote or use commercial space services if one, and everyone else, has perished in a planetary collision.”

This argument is unavailing because of the Supreme Court’s “Major Questions Doctrine,” which holds that “[w]e expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.'” See Utility Air Regulatory Group v. Environmental Protection Agency (2014); accord see West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency (2021) (courts “expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast economic and political significance”); Biden v. Nebraska (2022) (Barrett, J., concurring) (“Just as we would expect a parent to give more than a general instruction if she intended to authorize a babysitter-led getaway, we also “expect Congress to speak clearly if it wishes to assign to an agency decisions of vast ‘economic and political significance.’”  


The probable destruction of all life, human and non-human, on Earth, may, as defendants insist, be undesirable; then again, as plaintiffs argue, it may be, to borrow a phrase from the Bard of Avon’s immortal Hamlet, “a consummation devoutly to be wished.” See W. Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark III:1, 71-72 (1599-1601); but cf.  Stevens, J., remarks at “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” (“You can’t help but have these gnawing doubts that this author may, perhaps, have been someone else.”)

The question of authorship is beyond the scope of the present controversy; as is the desirability of the apocalypse, which is a policy question with which this Court, it hardly needs to be said, does not concern itself. Suffice it to say that the question is beyond peradventure one of “vast economic and political significance” (not to mention its spiritual significance to plaintiffs and many others); as we do not expect Congress “to hide elephants in mouseholes,” we do expect that such sweeping authority be granted in explicit terms.

The doctrine may seem paradoxical; indeed defendant mocks it as embodying a maxim that “the more dangerous and urgent a problem may be, the less power the government has to protect against it.” That is as may be, but the delay and cumbersome procedures of legislation, designed by our wise Founding Fathers, are designed to protect our liberties by insulating us from hasty or overambitious governmental action, which has so often led to oppression. After all, the power that protects may also harm; the agency that can, at its whim, save the world today, prudence tells us, may, by an opposite caprice, destroy it tomorrow.

On second thought, scratch “tomorrow.”

Of course, if Congress were to amend the Act between now and Thursday, “the case is alter’d, quoth Plowden,” as a Jacobean dancy might say. (But see B. Jonson, 1572 – 1637, A Pleasant Comedy, called: The Case is Altered n.d.) Barring such action, however, NASA lacks the authority to save the world and must not do so.

Accordingly, defendant must cease all activities related to Operation Safeguard by midnight tonight. The Court thanks counsel on both sides and the 4,498 amici who filed briefs for the defendant for their skilled and civil advocacy.


This is not real—yet. Happy Halloween!

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Garrett Epps is the legal affairs editor at the Washington Monthly.