Sunday, January 27, 2008

Do We
Really Need
Asteroid Surfing?


From my early years, I have always been in awe of anything related to space. I was glued to the TV back on 20 July, 1969 when Neil Armstrong took "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," and today I remain fascinated about the coming onslaught of commercial space tourism.

At the center of all this has always been NASA, and I have plenty of respect for what they stand for, and what they accomplish. But when I read that they are actually thinking of landing an actual human onto the face of the asteroid known as 99942 Apophis, I can't help but to think such a mission is just plain ridiculous.

There are plenty of great articles and information out there that explains the remote threat that our planet from time to time will get smacked by very large, very fast-moving rocks from outer space. There are craters around the globe that are proof of this, so it is not outside of the realm of possibility that the threat exists.

The best source I could find is the B612 Foundation, which has a web site loaded with great information on just how we can and should go up and deflect the trajectory of inbound asteroids. A particularly good read is this report (pdf) NASA released to Congress on 8 March 2007.

But since our country is basically broke – having to borrow money to stay afloat and pay for things like Bush's war and his sham economic stimulus package – it seems crazy to try to fund this asteroid adventure, a story coming not from some whacked fringe web site with no credibility, but the highly-respected popularmechanics.com:
"It may not be exactly what we had in mind when we outlined five possible plans to stop the Apophis asteroid in Popular Mechanics’ latest cover story, but NASA is looking into sending a manned spacecraft to the near-Earth object. Scientists pinpoint 2029 as the year that the 25-million-ton, 820-foot-wide asteroid could hit Earth, wreaking havoc that puts our five future mega-disasters to shame. Odds are the asteroid will miss us, but if it hits a precisely located gravitational keyhole, Apophis would swing back around and put Earth in the crosshairs for a collision in 2036."
I couldn't find a dollar figure showing how much this asteroid surfing trip would cost, but one can only imagine the bill will be huge. Sure, why not just put it on our country's already maxxed-out credit card. Not a problem, as long as the mission is successful. But when you really think about what they want to accomplish, it is just plain crazy:
According to Wikipedia, Apophis is just 820 feet long, and is traveling at about 110,629 kilometers an hour. Let's compare that the the carrier USS Essex, which is also about 820 feet long and cruises the open seas at about 24 knots per hour. We aviators all know that without question, the most precise landings any pilot can make is a carrier landing – there is literally no room for error. And that is at about 27 mph! Try performing the same maneuver in space when the target is blasting along at well north of 68,000 mph! Even Tom Cruise can't grease that landing.
So for the sake of debate, let's say NASA succeeds on planting an astronaut on Apophis. Then what? They take samples, they take pictures, they feed live footage back to your TV, and America rejoices that NASA has saved our planet's future. But have they? Will this mission be a slam dunk success, or just a photo op for an agency that would really, really like to plant a guy on Mars?

I have scoured the B612 Foundation site this AM, and read whatever I could on the chances of a large flaming rock flattening my living room. It sure looks like the chance theoretically exists, but I would love to see the next President and his/her Congress – supported by the scientific community – require that NASA guarantee they can steer these asteroids away from Earth before we raid our children's financial future to let them try. It will not be enough to simple stand atop an asteroid and shout "we did it"...they need hard science that once there, the ship and crew will carry the equipment and expertise to do the job and save the day.

But, when you look at the asteroid's Wikipedia page, the threat may not really be that great:
As of October 19, 2006, the impact probability for April 13, 2036, is estimated at 1 in 45,000. An additional impact date in 2037 has been identified; however, the impact probability for that encounter is 1 in 12.3 million.
One in forty five thousand. I would stand in front of a Greyhound bus heading straight for me if I knew the chances of me kissing its windshield were just 1 in 45,000. Is that sufficient odds to justify dropping billions and billions on asteroid surfing? That is a question we can all debate until infinitum, or at least until Apophis beats the odds and slaps down Earth in a crash of biblical proportions.

And don't even get me started on Bush's yearning to send a manned mission to Mars, one that would require a filling station be built on our Moon first. We do not need men on Mars these days, we need adequate schools, no hungry children, and bridges that do not collapse. We need a health care system that isn't slowly killing off the middle class, we need to bring American jobs home from China, and we need emergency legislation and funding to find alternative fuels so we can tell the Saudis where they can stick those $100 barrels of oil.

Until any President can fix those broken parts of our great country, the very last thing we need is to pump billions of imaginary money into NASA for anything beyond required trips to deliver the groceries to the International Space Station.