Thursday, January 05, 2006

What Should Be More Important? Colonizing The Moon Or Mitigating Asteroids?

Seems a simple enough question. I can imagine that those five of you who read this blog would already know MY answer (hint: it ain't no frickin mooncamp). But what does NASA think?

Before we get to that answer let's break down the question a little further.

In terms of NASA's engineering priorities, budgetary decisions, and manpower- what truly is more important to the well being and survival of the human race?

Here is NASA's mission statement.

NASA Mission Statement

To advance and communicate scientific knowledge and understanding of the earth, the solar system, and the universe.
To advance human exploration, use, and develoment of space.
To research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics and space technologies.
And here is NASA's "Vision Statement".
NASA Vision NASA is an investment in America's future. As explorers, pioneers, and innovators, we boldly expand frontiers in air and space to inspire and serve America and to benefit the quality of life on Earth.
Before I get in to full rant mode, I want to take time to say that every person I have met or corresponded with that is involved with NASA was extremely dedicated and serious about the aforementioned statements. The time and effort it takes to put together a mission like Deep Impact for instance is mind-boggling. Their efforts are truly honorable.

There is also the matter of odds concerning an asteroid impact. It is less likely that an impact causing either regional or global devastation will happen within the next hundred years than say a flu pandemic or a terrorist nuclear strike. However, this doesn't mean we shouldn't be preparing for it. A year ago yesterday Richard Posner had this to say about "the Economics of Catastrophic Risk"-
The fact that a catastrophe is very unlikely to occur is not a rational justification for ignoring the risk of its occurrence........A dramatic example of neglect of low-probability/high-cost risks concerns the asteroid menace, which is analytically similar to the menace of tsunamis. NASA, with an annual budget of more than $10 billion, spends only $4 million a year on mapping dangerously close large asteroids, and at that rate may not complete the task for another decade, even though such mapping is the key to an asteroid defense because it may give us years of warning. Deflecting an asteroid from its orbit when it is still millions of miles from the earth is a feasible undertaking. In both cases, slight risks of terrible disasters are largely ignored essentially for political reasons.

In part because tsunamis are one of the risks of an asteroid collision, the Indian Ocean disaster has stimulated new intereset in asteroid defense. This is welcome. The fact that a disaster of a particular type has not occurred recently or even within human memory (or even ever) is a bad reason to ignore it. The risk may be slight, but if the consequences should it materialize are great enough, the expected cost of disaster may be sufficient to warrant defensive measures.
Keeping in mind the NASA budget numbers again- A $10 billion budget, and only $4 million a year spent on mapping asteroids (never mind mitigating them)- let's now turn to a recent conversation between Planetary scientist Don Yeomans and Alan Boyle, Science editor for MSNBC. During this conversation, Yeomans talks about the efforts of NASA to track Apophis, and also the current responsibilities of NASA in terms of dealing with the mitigation os Apophis-

"We shouldn't be going hard over and devoting a lot more resources than what we have now, perhaps," he said. "But the modest level of spending that NASA is doing now - about $4 million a year - is probably appropriate, at least for the time being, for the insurance that we get as a result of tracking these objects into the future. We don't get the giggle factor nearly as much as we once did."

Although the study of near-Earth asteroids has come a long way in the past decade, one big question still hangs in the air: Who takes over if Yeomans and his colleagues actually spot an asteroid or comet heading our way?

At least officially, it's not NASA. True, NASA identifies and tracks potentially threatening near-Earth objects, and NASA does have plans to respond to Apophis if necessary. However, dealing with an actual threat is not part of the space agency's job description, Yeomans said.

"NASA does not have the charter to look at that, nor does anyone else," he said. "That's the point - no one does at the moment."

Um, hello?

If not NASA, who? Name me any space program that has the experience and tools needed to actually even BEGIN to work on a mission to mitigate an asteroid besides NASA.

Yeomans goes on to discuss further about this bizzare denial of NASA to get involved with mitigating a deep space threat-
I've been warned, and warned, and warned again by NASA Headquarters not to sign NASA up for any mitigation responsibilities - because NASA does not have that responsibility at the moment. So I'm not to say anything on that.

Q: What would have to happen to make those sorts of studies? Rusty [Schweickart, of the B612 Foundation] has said that there should be an agency designated to protect Earth from near-Earth objects and address some of these mitigation measures - whether it's a national or international agency, or set up under an international treaty. Is there a range of political scenarios for that?

A: What would have to happen, of course, is that the policy makers and Congress would have to direct NASA or the Department of Defense or someone to take responsibility for this, and then they would begin the studies necessary to come up with those options. As I mentioned, NASA does not have the charter to look at that, nor does anyone else. That's the point - no one does at the moment.

Q: The charter that NASA has is to identify those objects.

A: Identify and track. But not mitigate, and not deflect. They're really sensitive about that.
I am having a difficult time understanding why NASA is so "sensitive" about being given the responsibility to head up an agency designated to protect Earth from near-Earth objects and address some of these mitigation measures. Why is this? Going back to NASA's "Vision" statement that "NASA is an investment in America's future", shouldn't they be in charge of making sure that there will even BE a future for America and the world for that matter?

What scares me is that the reason why NASA may be so "sensitive" about this is that certain individuals are protecting their own pet projects. If suddenly congress demanded that NASA go from being simply a "tracking only" program in terms of Asteroids to mitigation as well, it would cause funding to be shifted from other NASA programs. This means that for instance perhaps a moon landing may have to be shelved for another decade or two. The proposed amount to send men back to the moon by 2018 has been reported at $104 billion. That's big money, most likely involving many kick backs to various industries who stand to get a piece of that $104 billion.

Could it be that the reason NASA doesn't want to get serious about asteroid mitigation is simply greed? I'm all for going back to the moon, but not at the expense of our ability to protect the planet from mitigating asteroids.

I fear that this mentality will continue until we get whacked again with another Near Earth Object. I leave you with this, the 1908 Tunguska Impact, which felled an estimated 60 million trees over 2,150 square kilometers. Look at the following map and you'll see that the rotation of the earth would have put this impact close to downtown Moscow had it landed a few hours later.

Again, it's not a question of if, but when folks. The moon is cool and all, but c'mon.

And if not NASA, who?

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