As many of my most loyal readers know, I have a particular preoccupation (read that, terror) about the possibility of a large space rock slamming into Earth and annihilating just about all living things on this rather handsome planet. The anxiety caused by this preoccupation usually manifests itself most potently on a day just like today â€“ a sunny spring day with everything in bloom, the birds chirping, the happy hopeful children on their way to school, the coffee brewing, the fresh slop steaming deliciously in the sty. Or at night, when I'm trying desperately to fall asleep despite my heart beating like a tom-tom at the prospect of something the size of Orange County entering our atmosphere at about 25,000 miles per hour just before my alarm goes off.
Not that I can do anything about it, of course, once things reach that stage. Which is why I would like to avoid things getting to that stage.
I must state that his preoccupation of mine far predates movies like "Armageddon" or "Deep Impact," neither of which did much to becalm my fears but on the contrary exacerbated them. Relying on the likes of Steve Buscemi or Ben Affleck diverting something hell-bent on kicking Earth's ass only redoubled my warehousing of canned food to try to weather the years of darkened skies and global crop failure that would result from a large object strike. Now, you might not want to weather such an altered Earth environment. I'll confess that I'm haunted by the imagined shout, "Hey, the pig's got lots of canned beans! Get him!" whenever I'm adding more to my already well-stocked pantry, and wonder if there's advantage to being the looter rather than the looted. I am considering diverting some of my bunker budget to guns and ammo, though that strikes me as extreme. I suppose that when it comes down to survival of me and mine, however, I'll no doubt shoot.
Just last week, I experienced equal parts horror and pleasure when my June 2008 copy of The Atlantic arrived, with Gregg Easterbrook's cover story on asteroids, the likelihood of one striking the earth, the results, and what the scientific community, particularly NASA, is doing about it. I won't get into all the details here: I strongly encourage you, dear reader, to visit www.theatlantic.com or pick up a copy of the magazine to read the article. But the upshot of the piece is, re asteroids, there are many many many many more out there in our solar system than scientists and astronomers have long believed (mostly because they haven't really looked all that closely, and asteroids are sometimes hard to spot) and their orbits are not quite as stable as was long assumed. The likelihood of one or more striking Earth? To use a technical term, freaking high. What would happen if one hit? A one-kilometer object would most likely cause global calamity. What are we, namely NASA, doing about it? Pretty much nothing.
Oh, NASA has spent a tiny amount of time doing a bit of research in this area. Their Jet Propulsion Laboratory has started logging potentially dangerous objects, although they only began doing so around 1980. Then, as Easterbrook writes, "only 86 near-Earth asteroids and comets were known to exist.
"Extrapolating from recent discoveries," he continues, "NASA estimates that there are perhaps 20,000 potentially hazardous asteroids and comets in the general vicinity of Earth."
Twenty thousand?! So, why isn't NASA doing anything? Because, surprisingly or not, NASA is an organization, whatever their charter happens to state, that is driven by politics. Their policy is dictated by the White House and Congress. Which is why they are planning on spending billions and billions of taxpayer dollars, once they phase out the shuttle program in 2010, to build a moon base. Originally, President Bush wanted to focus all of NASA's efforts on a manned mission to Mars. Because the costs for pursuing such an endeavor were wildly preposterous, they settled instead on the moon base idea, positioning it as an important first step in an eventual Mars mission. Yes, a moon base will cost vast, vast sums of moneyâ€”sums that, if you really did want to go to Mars, would probably be better spent researching and developing the means for that. And, Easterbrook writes: "As anyone with an aerospace engineering background well knows, stopping at the moon, as Bush was suggesting, actually would be an impediment to Mars travel, because huge amounts of fuel would be wasted landing on the moon and then blasting off again."
But building a moon base under the guise of creating some kind of lunar service plaza on the Mars turnpike guarantees decades of funding pouring into NASA, keeping everyone employed â€“ government and contractors alike â€“ and NASA facilities open in all their many congressional districts. So NASA signed on and Congress authorized the program.
I have to confess that I think a Courtyard by Marriott on the moon would be way cool: all those bored, lonely, horny astronauts sitting around up there, playing ping-pong and drinking Tang mimosas to relieve the stress of rock-collecting expeditions. It would be an awful bummer, though, to be out one day picking up a rock and looking up to see a massive explosion on the surface of your home planet. No one would be going home for Christmas that year.
Look, I have nothing against adventure and nothing against space exploration. The Apollo missions certainly fueled my young imagination; I sent my Major Matt Mason action figure on plenty of lunar-related adventures. I wanted to be an astronaut. I read Tom Swift adventures. I appreciate the wild magic of the Final Frontier.
But it seems to me that priorities and their attendant funds are wildly misdirected, considering the security concerns for our planet in the middle of a very busy, bumpy solar system. We will learn a lot from space exploration, I'm sure. But if there's nothing left alive on the planet to benefit from that knowledge, it's pretty pointless, isn't it?
So you're probably wondering, that's all very chilling, but can we really do anything about it? Actually, we can. It really doesn't take Bruce Willis and multi-megaton nuclear devices to divert an asteroid. Causing even just a slight change in an object's orbit is enough to deflect it from hitting the planet. And we currently have the technology and brain-power available to accomplish such a thing.
But we can't do anything about it if we don't 1) plan for it, 2) develop potential solutions and test them, and 3) spend much, much more time finding and tracking potential threats.
My point is this. In 2009 there will be a new administration in the White House. I want everyone out there to write to all the candidates. Go to their Web sites and start sending them messages. Write to your congressional representatives in Washington as well. Tell them that if there's a choice between the moon motel project being killed or all life on Planet Earth, you're going to have to opt for the moon motel. Less than one-tenth of NASA's budget goes to anything that has to do with near-Earth space rocks, and just about all of that piddling amount is expended just in cataloging them, when they can. But vast areas of space are not being monitored. Preparing to divert a planet-killing object is going to take a few years of research and preparation. Believe me, NASA does not have some secret program run by Billy Bob Thornton that's going to snap into action the moment somebody spots a city-size hunk of metal on a collision course with Washington D.C., let alone anywhere else. But they could. And they should. Space exploration is fine; visiting and colonizing the moon and other planets is not only a source of national prestige, it's also inevitable. But right now, we live here, and this is the only place available, and it seems to me that we should make keeping the place habitable not just a goal, but a necessity.
Write 'em. Tell 'em. NASA's first order of business should be protecting the planet and preserving humanity. A president can set this course, can make this a priority.