February 7, 2013
In the late 1990s, "Armageddon" made a lot of money off a fictional story about a space rock headed for our planet that would destroy all life on it. "Deep Impact" told a similar story, though with less box office success.
Peel away the infinite factual errors of "Armageddon" -- no spacecraft has skin thick enough to deflect pieces of a meteor, for instance -- and it tells a real story. It tells about the past, and it tells about the future.
A week from Friday, asteroid 2012 DA14 will fly by our planet closer than the GPS satellites we use to find directions almost everywhere. It's about 50 yards in diameter, the same size as a similar rock that exploded over Tunguska, Siberia, in 1908 and leveled an area the size of Tokyo.
Thankfully, about nothing lives near Tunguska. Otherwise, it would probably be known as "the Tunguska extinction" instead of "the Tunguska Event."
What I find extremely unsettling is the fact that this rock was discovered all of a year ago by amateur astronomers in Spain. I have nothing against Spain or the European Space Agency, but we're talking about an entire continent that has never launched a manned capsule into space. Only the U.S., Russia and China have done so.
Since the entire economy collapsed in 2008 and sent our budget into free fall, our deficit has been a huge concern. We've got Social Security, Medicare and Defense as the three largest chunks of our spending. All three of those large portions of our government are dedicated to the same thing: keeping us alive longer.
So I pose the question: Why does NASA get only about $18 billion when space is home to so much that can do damage beyond our worst nightmares?
One episode of one of my favorite TV shows, "The Universe," is called "Stopping Armageddon." It shows a lot of plans different scientists have for stopping big space rocks just like the one that's going to give the ol' tower a flyby just like Maverick did in "Top Gun." It involves lasers, focusing sunlight, gravity tractors and other fun stuff. None of it has been tested. There are no plans to test any of this.
Meanwhile, we have spent about $1.5 trillion on our wars in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We lost about 3,000 people on that day, we have lost about 8,000 of our troops, including allied forces, in those two wars to date. Who knows how many thousands on the other side died, which includes a heavy number of civilians.
Drop a 50-yard asteroid on New York City and you've got at least 8 million people dead.
Thankfully, that scenario is extremely unlikely. At least we think it is based on the asteroids we track. But I don't exactly see why we should take chances on something we know has happened before and will happen again.
I see no reason why NASA isn't seen as part of our country's protection for the lives of its residents. I don't really like the fact that we retired one spacecraft before another was ready to take its place based on the tiny budget of NASA. We had another rock come between Earth and the moon last year.
I think NASA still needs a top priority of scientific research and discovery. I like where it's headed with the Space Launch System able to take us to Mars and getting private companies involved so spaceflight becomes more like using airplanes. But I don't like how much less time we're spending with men in space while we catch up. We flooded Southeast Asia with cash instead of continuing exploration in the 1970s because of Vietnam. We just made the same mistake again.
I know the wonks at NASA probably are too dedicated to science to really make this push, but I wish someone would really speak about the benefit of something like a doubled NASA budget to help protect our planet. It would take a group of people who know the military better than me to figure out where we could trim off things we don't use and probably won't use in our defense -- think of President Barack Obama's comment about bayonets and horses in one of the debates.
Take that money and instead build a defense fleet for the 21st century. The space shuttle was the pickup truck we used for 30 years to do everything. With a bigger budget, we could've kept it going while developing the more flexible capsules that take astronauts to the International Space Station and the additional modules that would be needed to go past Earth orbit.
I really would rather not see millions of people killed because we knew about threats to our planet and just figured it wasn't an issue. Plenty of scientists know it's an issue, but we just don't have enough eyes in the sky to figure out when the next rock is on track to hit us instead of just give us a close shave.
I would also rather not rely on Russia alone to launch some Earth-saving mission. The U.S. won the race to the moon for a reason, and Bruce Willis is American, right?
Michael Buckelew is a copy editor for the Gwinnett Daily Post. Email him at email@example.com.