After this Wake-up Call, Will We Simply Hit the Snooze Button?

My take on the meteor explosion/close asteroid pass wake-up call:

My guess is that within a week or so, the world will have hit the snooze button and largely forgotten everything because that’s simply the sort of world we live in. We get wake up calls almost every day, about something or another, but life is so hectic and there are so many things to do and so little cash to spare to do them, that we just move on to the next crisis without giving the last one even a second thought.

Now, there are calls for the government to do something before a real tragedy occurs. That will prove difficult because NASA can’t even do all the things it’s asked to do already with the money it is given. If sequestration hits on March 1, it will have even less money to do all those things. In the battle to shrink government, the damage that results to individual programs, however valuable or indispensable, is acceptable collateral damage.

To wit, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. It would get hammered under sequestration, with its budget deeply cut and schedule seriously delayed. That will continue to leave the entire International Space Station project — on which we have spent 30 years and $100 billion — dependent on Russian launch vehicles and spacecraft.

Now, over the last couple of years, there have been a series of wake up calls — in the form of a string of launch mishaps — that indicate this is a seriously bad idea. The Russian space program has reached the limit of its ability to coast on Soviet-era hardware and accomplishments. It’s worn out its equipment and its personnel and screwed up its quality control system and failed to attract a new generation of people to work in low-paying jobs. And the Russian military-industrial complex is so corrupt and inefficient that much of the extra money the government has put into the sector has been wasted or stolen.

Instead of responding to these wake up calls, our leaders — and I use that term loosely — have repeatedly hit the snooze button. Congress has tried valiantly to nickel and dime the program to death, regularly slashing NASA’s budget request for it by half while lavishing funds on a super booster and a deep spacecraft that won’t fly with a crew for another eight years and will be so expensive to operate that we will be lucky to fly them more than every few years.

The reality is, politicians use NASA’s modest budget as a pinata to spread goodies in the form of jobs across states and Congressional districts. Programmatic needs are of secondary priority, if they are considered at all. The fact that we have to continue to pay the Russians an ever increasing amount of money to fly our astronauts to a space station we primarily funded for years longer than necessary when a solution is readily at hand speaks volumes about Congress’ inability to prioritize anything ahead of individual member’s re-election prospects.

All this makes our space agency ill prepared to deal with existential threats except for the faced by more a handful of astronauts who are in space at any given time. The space agency can certainly assist in assessing the threat, as it has been doing, but don’t depend on it to do anything if we’re really in trouble.

Fortunately, NASA will likely have some help in this effort, in the form of private ventures. The B-612 Foundation, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries are all focused on identifying what lies out there. With the latter two companies, they hope to make billions — or even trillions — by exploiting the resources contained in these near Earth objects.

Conceptual Human NEA Mission Excursion Vehicle Using SEP System (Image Credit/Source: NASA / AMA, Inc.)
Conceptual Human NEA Mission Excursion Vehicle Using SEP System (Image Credit/Source: NASA / AMA, Inc.)

These are positive developments, but there are potentially serious drawbacks. First, these are all speculative ventures whose success simply cannot be known at this time. This is not a knock on any of them, just an observation about the nature of what they are attempting. Even as Planetary Resources officials paraded a series of billionaire backers before the cameras, they were warning of the many obstacles that lay ahead. And not long after coming out of stealth mode, they tried to crowd source the construction of one of their spacecraft.

So, the government has a bit of dilemma here. It should certainly coordinate as closely as possible with these private ventures to gather as much information as possible, maximize efficiency and avoid a costly duplication of effort. Cooperation is a natural fit here.

But, how much can it rely upon ventures that no one is sure is going to around in five years? This was a serious question raised during the debate over commercial crew. The solution in that case was for NASA to provide the bulk of the money for development and to purchase transport services down the road with the hope that will keep the companies and program afloat. Perhaps that could be a model for cooperation, where the government would purchase data on near Earth objects from private companies.

The more fundamental problem is what to do if we discover some large asteroid barreling toward Earth with our name on it. That would be a situation that neither NASA nor the private ventures would be remotely prepared to handle. Their budgets are far too small, nor is defense their primary focus.

That leads me to a reluctant conclusion: the only way to really address this threat is to militarize it. Near Earth objects have to be categorized as an existential threat to the safety and security of the country – the world, in fact – and the Pentagon has to be given a lead role in figuring out ways to neutralize these objects.

The military is the only government agency that has a mandate to focus on defense with experience operating in space and a large enough budget to handle a threat of this nature. And it is the one agency that conservatives, determined as they to shrink the size of government, seldom if ever hesitate to give more money.

Now, when you say military and asteroids, it conjures up visions of nuclear weapons in space, launch accidents irradiating the Florida Space Coast, and orbiting bombs ready to drop on a city near you with no notice. And, in truth, it would be tragic if our efforts to prevent cities from being flattened by extraterrestrial objects simply enhanced the probability of them being leveled by the very devices we built to protect them in the first place.

But, it might not come to that. Nuclear devices are only one potential way of diverting a threatening asteroid. And they might not, in fact, be the best option for accomplishing that goal. There are other possibilities, but they need to be researched much more thoroughly. And the soon, the better.

Now, does the Pentagon want this responsibility? Probably not. It’s got enough on its plate. And there’s no guarantee that the effort wouldn’t get sink in priority within a massive bureaucracy that, by nature, must deal with more immediate threats across the globe. But, I see no other choice.

All this assumes, however, that our leaders are keen on spending a great deal more money on a threat that could wipe us all out next year or in a hundred years. Given the current budget environment, I would guess that they are not. So, don’t be surprised if they respond to this wake-up call by hitting the snooze button.