PC Gaming, Technology, Planets, and Whatever We Feel Like

Search This Blog

Friday, June 09, 2006

The best defense is a good offense

In a story that a lot of other bloggers have noticed, there was a large bolide impact in Norway a few days ago. The force of the explosion equalled Hiroshima, but it happened in a wilderness, and fortunately nobody got hurt.

Once again, just like in Tunguska in 1908 and the infamous near-miss that occurred over the Pacific Ocean at the height of Pakistani-Indian tensions a few years back, we dodged a bullet. If the bolide had hit a large city it would have been a disaster; if it had struck in an ocean the tsunami would kill millions outright.

We live in a cosmic shooting gallery. Even a "small" bolide could kill tens of millions of people. There wouldn't be any time for Gallup polls or talking heads or interviews with "experts" on CNN or Congressional hearings to point fingers at what went wrong or editorials saying "Oops, we really shouldn't have been criticizing the American human spaceflight program for all these years, after all". Civilization would simply end.

Thanks to popcorn fluff like Amageddon and Deep Impact, you probably think that we'd just launch a space shuttle to stop a rogue bolide with our name on it. Unfortunately, with current sensors we'd be darn lucky to get a few hours warning, and by then it would be too late. Although there are some telescopes that are being built that will be on full-time asteroid watching duties, they won't be ready for a few more years. Those goofy movies depicted a far more organized response than anything we could muster currently. There's no secret Air Force manned space launchers. There's no Stargate Command ready to launch space fighters to stop bolides. We don't have sensors constantly scanning the sky looking for bolides. We don't even have spacecraft that can leave low-earth orbit. Heck, we know so little about asteroids that there's some experts who think that a nuclear deflection wouldn't even work. We need robotic and human exploration missions to asteroids to more accurately assess the threat and how to define countermeasures.

Right now, even if we had a few years of lead time, I doubt there's much we can do. We're lucky when the Shuttle flies more than twice a year, and it can't leave low-earth orbit. For the forseeable future, we are simply incapable of defending ourselves. With the Shuttle grounded, we're actually technically no better off than the dinosaurs, and we all know how well that turned out for them.

There's definitely an "Out of sight, out of mind" mentality when it comes to bolide impacts. However, you have to multiply the probability of an asteroid impact (small but actually higher than your chances of perishing in a car accident) by the result of an impact (we all have a really bad day). Seen in that light, NASA's paltry tiny chunk of the Federal Budget (and the even more minuscule sub-percentage of that amount which actually goes towards human space development and asteroid studies), while not as big as it probably should be, is a sound insurance policy.

We're not helpless, but we need time and support to correct what everyone in the know acknowledges is a really scary situation. The only defense against the inevitable is to become a true spacefaring civilization. We need infrastructure, and lots of it, and soon. We're racing against time here, and there's a good chance we could still lose. We need extensive economic development of cislunar space, robust transportation systems, and thriving, permanent communities throughout near-earth space. Only then will we have the means to intercept and deflect a bolide.

This, the creation of the means to stop an incoming asteroid, is in my view the best single reason to aggressively promote and support space settlement and development. It's a case that some people, like Apollo 16 commander John Young and current NASA Administrator Mike Griffin have been making eloquently for many years. However, we have a long way to go. In a recent example of editorial stupidity, the Washington Post proclaimed that the need to preserve human civilization in the face of this kind of threat doesn't justify the short-term expense [which, again I will point out, is far less than 1% of the Federal Budget. We actually spend about 85 times as much money on pizza and beer in the United States] of creating some of the needed infrastructure by returning humans to the Moon. I certainly hope that near-misses like the one that just happened in Norway will help to change minds of the shortsighted and convince people that we need to become a true spacefaring civilization before it's too late.


  1. I can't say I disagree, but I really believe that more pressing matters should be resolved first...

    Humanity's immortality shouldn't be a priority. Al least, not yet.

  2. I don't think it has to be one or the other. In general, I think a lot of money gets wasted in beaurocracy that could be used for more important things. Social programs shouldn't have to come at the expense of space exploration, and vice versa.

    The unfortunate truth is there is no such thing as utopia, but I agree that there are lots of social problems in the world that need to be resolved. Most of the ills in the world (in my opinion) are routed in people's perceptions and attitudes towards others. I think many of the world's problems require people to change themselves.

    But back to the point about asteroid defense: I've got BNG Possum looking for some links that show how much money gets spent on space exploration (and asteroid defense gets like 0.0001% of that). But, from memory, the money spent on space exploration is a very small fraction compared to what is spent on other programs and is not enough to end all the world's problems. Although, spending the money on space exploration in ways that can benefit the world (such as new food resources, free energy for everyone, natural disaster prediction) could fix many global socio-political problems.

    Unfortunately, that is not currently how most space exploration monies are spent, but maybe they should be. The problem: the general public does not have favorable opinions about supporting programs such as free energy. With energy costs rising, I'm hoping that people will start to become interested.

  3. You covered me. Besides even the USSR had quite an impressive space program ;)