Saturday, May 17, 2008

Mainstream Asteroid Fears

Space-related articles in the mainstream press are a mixed bag. They can bring space related issues to a wider audience, but they often suffer from poor or selective research, sensationalism, and oversimplification or mistakes. The cover of the June issue of The Atlantic shows a glowing-gas-streaked asteroid about to hit the Earth, with the headline "The Sky Is Falling." The subhead says, "It's inevitable: asteroids with the power to annihilate us will come this way. Can NASA divert them before it's too late?"

I like The Atlantic and I have read other articles by Gregg Easterbrook. He's generally a good and careful writer. But this article is a bit mixed. It is true that over some time period that the Earth will certainly be hit by a large "space rock." I agree that this is a threat that humanity should take seriously, and more people are thinking about this than ever before. We are building up the ability to monitor the skies for near-Earth objects on a finer and more regular basis. The article is good on explaining the threat and what could be done about it (but mostly isn't). More can and should be done, and it ultimately is a world-wide threat that should be addressed internationally.

My main objection concerns his handling of the immanence of this threat. True, we don't know the exact odds, and even if it were once in a million years, that could be tomorrow. But finding and quoting one "asteroid expert" who puts the odds as 1 in 10 within this century exaggerates the urgency of the threat in my opinion. This also dramatizes his complaints that NASA is doing nothing about the threat, other than estimating a cost of $1 billion to do the NEO survey requested by Congress. Easterbrook clearly doesn't think much of the NASA's mandated plans for the Moon and Mars, and suggests that instead of the "Vision" that NASA should be working on ways to detect and deflect rogue asteroids.

But Mike Griffin is right when he says that he doesn't decide NASA's direction, he just runs it. If the President and Congress provide the direction and funds for NASA to work on asteroid defenses, I'm sure they will. We'll have to wait until after the election to see how this will go. I happen to think we need and can afford expanded human and robotic exploration as well as expanded asteroid research and defenses, and that these programs will ultimately prove to be synergistic and also contribute to our economic development. The "sky" certainly could fall someday, and we should prepare for that as one part of our space program. But that's not the only reason for more active space programs.

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