Rocks in space
So, which would you rather do: Capture an asteroid or go back to the moon?
This is one of the many interesting issues facing Congress that we probably will not have time to debate once Congress actually comes back next month. Then it’ll be nothing but Obamacare and government shutdowns and the occasional discussion about whether Sen. Ted Cruz has managed to dispose of his recently discovered dual Canadian citizenship.
Which I am personally looking forward to a lot. But today let’s consider the American space program.
Space exploration is one of the extremely few areas in which there is a lot of bipartisan agreement in Washington. For instance, both parties believe that the United States should be trying to get to Mars. Eventually. Nobody thinks this will happen anytime soon — partly because the technology is so challenging and partly because Congress keeps cutting the space budget. So far, NASA has not shown any interest in the tactic being used by a Dutch company that hopes to establish a Martian colony in about 10 years, with money that would come in part from producing a reality series, somewhere along the lines of “Big Brother” or perhaps “Real Housewives of the Red Planet.”
The third point of wide bipartisan agreement is that nobody wants their constituents to be clobbered by an asteroid. Really, this is a priority. The Obama administration is currently promoting an “asteroid grand challenge,” in which we’re invited “to find all asteroid threats to human populations” and figure out what to do about them.
And — this is good news, people — we’ve already pinpointed about 95 percent of all the rocks in the solar system that are of planet-mashing size.
I know that you are now instantly focusing on the remaining 5 percent, as well as the multitudinous smaller fellows that are capable of taking out Massachusetts or Paris — or your local shopping center. Everybody is in favor of finding them too, particularly since one grazed Russia earlier this year, causing the House Science Committee to hold a special Threats From Space meeting.
Even members of Congress who pooh-pooh the peril of global warming believe in the danger of global asteroid-exploding. I am thinking about Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who heads — yes! — the House Science Committee. And Cruz, the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space, who demanded that we “do what needs to be done” to prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth and smashing into a major American city. Or a Canadian one.
Despite all this cheerleading, there hasn’t been all that much money spent on the mission. Discover magazine estimated that over the past 15 years, the United States had spent less money on asteroid detection “than the production budget of the 1998 asteroid movie ‘Armageddon.’” In which Ben Affleck won Liv Tyler but the Earth lost Shanghai, much of New York and Bruce Willis. But we were talking about capturing asteroids.
The question is what NASA should do during the really, really long pre-Mars interlude. The White House wants to send an unmanned spacecraft to capture a smallish asteroid, tow it back and put it into orbit around the moon, where we could send astronauts to study it. This would most definitely help us in the race to develop the best “capture bag,” and there’s pretty wide agreement we would acquire some other useful technology as well.
“This would be the first time humans have, in some sense, rearranged the solar system for their own purposes. So that’s exciting,” said Tom Prince, director of the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology.
Not as far as the House of Representatives is concerned. The Science Committee recently voted to cut all the money for asteroid capture and invest it instead in a new moon landing. There were several objections to the Obama plan, the main one being that it was kind of boring. “Costly and uninspiring,” sniffed Chairman Smith.
The White House position was that if you wanted to talk about boring, look at a moon landing. “Going back to the moon, something we have done six times, just does not seem to us worth the investment,” Lori Garver, NASA deputy administrator, said in a phone interview.
And anyway, what about protecting the Earth from a killer asteroid? I believe I speak for all of us when I say that space exploration is good, but not being hit by a large hunk of galactic rock is even better.
The House Republicans could have a point. The asteroid that NASA wants to capture would be way smaller than Killer Visitor dimensions. Although it does seem a little peculiar that they’re calling for a dramatic moon-colony initiative at the same time they’re cutting the space budget.
It’s also conceivable that the Science Committee doesn’t like the Obama plan because it’s the Obama plan. This has been known to happen in the House. Perhaps we should be grateful it hasn’t voted to cancel the asteroid-capturing program 40 times.
Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.