Editor’s Note: As the Obama Administration commences its quest to shape its space policy and the direction of NASA, it is important to consider a priority not usually discussed on the campaign trail. What follows is an opinion piece written on April 26, 2007.
John F. Kennedy may not have realized it, but his goal of putting humans in space may one day help save the planet. It was Presidential leadership in the 1960’s that invigorated America to invest billions in man’s quest to move beyond the atmosphere. His vision set the tone for improving human life in the decades which followed. Research and development in space science produced amazing by-products. Our lives are enriched by Kennedy’s decisive actions. Years later, a new President, George W. Bush, told the nation America will return to the moon, and eventually land our species on Mars. As the Chinese push for a moon base in the coming years, it is not surprising that the administration feels compelled to establish a permanent foothold on the moon. Untold billions will be spent in this quest over the next decades. From a scientific, military and economic perspective, the President’s plan makes sense. But should this newly announced goal be NASA’s top priority in 2007 and 2008?
Absolutely not. Here’s why.
At a meeting in Washington D.C. during the week of March 5, 2007, leading scientists discussed the chances of asteroids destroying a city or creating a massive tsunami by impacting the ocean. It was determined the risk of an asteroid crashing into our planet and destroying humanity is “minuscule.” Good news, but it was also announced that based on new calculations, the odds of small asteroids hitting Earth and creating a massive wave or destroying a city are not clear. According to those scientists, the chances may be higher than previously thought. As reported in the Washington Post on March 9, 2007, “NASA estimates that there are as many as 100,000 of the smaller asteroids in near-Earth orbit and that about 20 are “potentially hazardous.”
The majority of asteroids circle the sun in an area between Jupiter and Mars, but not all. Some head toward the vicinity of Earth. All it takes is one to create a mega-disaster.
In 1908, a massive explosion took place in Tunguska, Siberia. The cause: an asteroid impact. The resulting explosion was estimated to have the force of a 15-megaton nuclear bomb. The blast area was 62 miles wide. The Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, Pete Wordon, told the Planetary Defense Conference held at George Washington University during the week of March 4, 2007, that an asteroid the size of the Tunguska disaster could destroy Washington D.C. and most of its suburban area.
According to an Associated Press article on March 7, 2007, “NASA officials say the space agency is capable of finding nearly all the asteroids that might pose a devastating hit to Earth, but there isn’t enough money to pay for the task so it won’t get done.” Inexcusable. The AP states the price tag for finding nearly ninety percent of the “potentially 20,000″ hazardous asteroids and comets over the next 13 years is approximately $1 billion. That figure comes from NASA itself. We need to take notice of NASA’s plea.
Like global warming and climate change, the threat from asteroids and comets is not science fiction. It is not the whimsical daydreaming of environmental fanatics. Want proof? The United States Congress took the threat seriously and passed a law in 2005, mandating NASA to develop a plan to find and track dangerous asteroids. It also set the policy of the United States to develop ways to push away the errant pieces of rock that pose imminent threats. Why? It is fact that asteroids, comets and meteorites have hit our planet, despite the protection our thin atmosphere provides. Some believe one such event may have doomed dinosaurs.
Efforts need to be made to prevent such catastrophes. The 2005 Congressional action is fine, but as usual, the devil is in the detail. According to Mr. Wordon, “We know what to do, we just don’t have the money.”
While NASA is tracking large bodies in space, at least 3,300 feet in diameter, funds are needed to locate smaller asteroids, larger than 460 feet in diameter. According to the AP article, that is a size slightly smaller than the Superdome in New Orleans. If one of those hits earth, or even comes close enough, the devastation would be unimaginable. One example of the damage an asteroid of that size could do… an explosion caused by such a body could take out an entire state the size of Maryland.
Since the United States is the only government with an established asteroid tracking program, let’s find the $1 billion and put it to work now. The Associated Press article reports NASA and the White House have called potential solutions to track these threats too expensive. So that begs some questions…what’s the point of going to Mars if we can’t use technology to protect Earth? What sense does it make to establish a moon base if mother Earth is placed as a lower priority? Will astronauts one day view an Earth impact from a Moon base and proclaim the collision was avoidable?
According to the Washington Post on March 9, 2007, the risk of death by asteroid is similar to dying in an airplane crash if a person flies one time a year. Yet, there is major concern about this issue. Sure, there is only a 1 in 45,000 chance that approaching asteroid Apophis will hit our planet in 2036. But why take a risk on those odds? After all, Floridians feel they each have an opportunity to be singled out by betting on a 1 in 14 million chance of winning the lottery.
What we know about asteroids is changing. We have much to learn. For example, in 1999, NASA launched “Stardust,” a mission to a comet named “Wild-2.” It flew by an asteroid named “Annefrank,” and something surprising happened. After coming within 2,050 miles of the asteroid, it was determined that Annefrank was much bigger (twice the size) than previously thought. It is clear we need as much information about asteroids, which are ancient remnants of our solar system, as soon as possible.
The AP article quotes the space policy director at George Washington University. His comment: “You can’t deflect them if you can’t find them.” Why not try. It’s only a billion dollars. If a chunk of Earth is taken out, untold trillions of dollars will be lost, not to mention a potential loss of life on a biblical scale. America’s efforts to return to the moon and Mars should not be eliminated. According to NASA on March 18, 2007, a Gallup poll shows 68% of those surveyed support the new plan to return to the moon, then travel to Mars and beyond. I am one of the strong supporters.
I do advocate that more money be spent by Congress to fund NASA, since in the three years since President Bush proclaimed his “Vision for Space Exploration” plan, funding for this crucial agency has been reduced. However, some of the monies designated for a Mars landing should be re-allocated to the science of asteroid tracking and deflection with all deliberate speed. We need to have a reality check on our space priorities.
We have the concepts, and some actual accomplishments, to deflect asteroids. We have landed on a comet. Japan is about to land on an asteroid. We know how to get to targets in our solar system, and we do it again and again. Scientists believe, according to the Washington Post, that NASA has concluded the most effective way to deflect an asteroid is to explode a nuclear bomb near these chunks of rock and ice. The goal would be to change the course of the asteroid. It is exploring other means, such as launching a satellite to orbit the asteroid and change the path of the object by gravitational pull. The Post article also points out that the European Space Agency has a program called “‘Don Quijote,” which is designed to deflect asteroids. Even Europe is taking this seriously. We need to give NASA the monetary fuel to do the program correctly, and fully fund it. With all the unspent billions waiting for the reconstruction of Iraq years after initial allocation, surely we can find one billion to help NASA fund what may be its most important mission.
From the beginning of space exploration, many have wondered what spending money on NASA does for them. It has been demonstrated time and time again that we all live better lives due to work done on the space program. As our knowledge grows about the universe, those efforts may one day save a state or city from destruction.
Why is this article here? Because you can do something about this funding problem. Make your concerns known to your elected federal representatives. Make Congress aware of your concern. Direct Washington to find the billion dollars. Why not make it the top priority of NASA? There’s no need to eliminate the effort to return to the moon or go to Mars, but those programs should not be higher on the priority list than the asteroid threat. Only one nation has the ability to get tracking done comprehensively…for the good of all nations. One billion dollars. Let’s get started and fund NASA’s program to protect all Earth. If we don’t, it may be one of mankind’s greatest regrets.